Author Archives: weeklysift

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

Witch Problems

As there is no evidence that voter impersonation fraud is a problem, how can the fact that a legislature says it’s a problem turn it into one? If the Wisconsin legislature says witches are a problem, shall Wisconsin courts be permitted to conduct witch trials?

Judge Richard Posner

No Sift next week. The next articles will appear November 3, which is election eve.

This week’s featured article is “7 Liberal Lessons of Ebola“.

This week everybody was still talking about Ebola

It’s hard to know what to do when panic hits like this, except just keep repeating facts.

Here are the new developments this week: a second nurse at the Dallas hospital that treated Thomas Duncan has tested positive for the disease. She flew from Dallas to Cleveland and back during a period when she might have been contagious. So far no one she was in contact with has tested positive, though several schools closed because either students or parents had some connection to one of those flights; that response seems completely over-the-top.

There was a brief scare surrounding a Yale student who got sick after returning from Liberia, but tests showed she did not have Ebola. Another scare concerned a cruise ship passenger, who also tested negative.

Meanwhile, there still appears to be zero contagion from the three Ebola cases (Americans who caught the disease in Africa, then came home for treatment) treated at Emory University. Two have been treated and released. The third is expected to be released soon. A fourth case treated at the Nebraska Medical Center Biocontainment Unit is reported to be recovering, and likewise, seems not to have infected anyone else.

There’s been a serious attempt by conservatives to re-interpret “airborne contagion” so that it can apply to Ebola, which does not propagate through the air. The most egregious case of this was George Will, who reinterpreted “airborne” to mean fluid projected through the air. So yes, if you are on a plane with an Ebola-infected person, you might catch the disease if that person sneezed or spit or vomited directly on you. But if that’s “airborne contagion”, then blunt force trauma is also an airborne contagion, because I can throw a brick through the air.

and voting rights


It was a mixed week for the right to vote. It was bad in Texas, where a new voter-suppression law will go into effect, the Supreme Court having failed to block it. But Wisconsin’s law will not be in force for the fall elections.

It’s been a good week for dissenting opinions, though. Justice Ginsberg and Appellate Judge Richard Posner (a conservative Reagan appointee who has been called “the most widely cited legal scholar of the 20th century” ) each took apart the justifications for these kinds of laws.

and the Catholic Church’s Synod on the Family

A question everybody was asking after Francis became Pope was: “He says things that sound good, but is he actually going to change anything?” That picture is starting to come into focus. He hasn’t been changing doctrine. In other words, women still can’t be priests, birth control is still wrong, and so forth. But he’s been trying to change emphasis — making poverty and justice higher-priority issues than sex — with mixed results.

Witness the recent Synod on the Family, which assembled many Catholic bishops in Rome. Draft reports that were proposed for the Synod’s approval did not change the Church’s vision of the ideal family: a man and woman marrying one for life, staying together, and raising children. But it tempered the Church’s approach to households that differed from that vision. It leaned towards meeting people where they are — divorced, living in sin, or refusing to have children — but appreciating what they are doing and trying to do with their lives, and then showing them the value of the church’s vision, rather than just condemning their inability or refusal to measure up to the church’s standards.

Following the expansive gaze of Christ, whose light illuminates every man (cf. Jn 1,9; cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22), the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings.

Similarly for same-sex couples, the document did not approve or endorse their relationships, but recognized that they express many of the same characteristics that the Church admires in its ideal marriages. The draft raised the question of how to welcome gays and lesbians while remaining true to Church teachings.

None of those paragraphs garnered the 2/3s support necessary to make it into the final document, which has been interpreted as a defeat for Francis. But the conversation has been changed, and the momentum will be with Francis, who, after all, is responsible for appointing new bishops and cardinals. If he stays in office long enough, the hierarchy will slowly turn in his direction, even if he doesn’t announce new infallible doctrine.

While Francis may not have personally picked the more moderate Archbishop Joseph Kurtz to replace outspoken culture-warrior Timothy Dolan as the head of the U. S. Council of Bishops (the bishops elected him themselves), his election was clearly a move by the U.S. bishops to get in line with their Pope. Friday we got confirmation that the Pope has replaced another conservative American: Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has been the head of the Vatican’s highest court.

This isn’t over.

and you also might be interested in …

2014 is on track to be the hottest year on record. So much for the claims that global warming ended in 1998, which should never have continued past 2005 and 2010.


Salon collects links from John Oliver, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert poking fun at the clueless ads aimed at getting women or young people to vote Republican.


As someone who has attended the Keene Pumpkin Festival — which I recall as a quaint, family-oriented event — two or three years ago, I’m embarrassed that it devolved into “destructive and raucous behavior” Saturday and resulted in police using tear gas. Interesting tongue-in-cheek response from TPM’s Josh Marshall:

White culture of violence on harrowing display as New Hampshire college pumpkin festival degenerates into violence, mayhem and arrests.

That kind of captures white privilege right there. It never occurs to us that we might be called to answer for “white culture”, but if a majority-black event goes awry … well, what can you expect from those people?

Raw Story captures a lot of snarky tweets related Keene to Ferguson, with the obvious difference: None of the white kids defying the police had to pay with their lives.


Meanwhile, it’s not over in Ferguson.


The NYT wrote a major report on the injuries U. S. soldiers in Iraq received from chemical weapons that the Saddam regime had either lost or disposed of improperly. Some Bush apologists jumped on it to claim vindication on Bush’s WMD claims, but Vox explains why they’re wrong.

Rather, today’s story reveals only that Iraq was sprinkled with aging, forgotten, and long-discarded warheads from Saddam’s shuttered 1980s chemical weapons program — and that the Bush and Obama administrations have systematically covered up discoveries of those warheads, including the wounds they’ve caused American soldiers.


Paul Krugman wrote “In Defense of Obama” for Rolling Stone.

Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history. His health reform is imperfect but still a huge step forward – and it’s working better than anyone expected. Financial reform fell far short of what should have happened, but it’s much more effective than you’d think. Economic management has been half-crippled by Republican obstruction, but has nonetheless been much better than in other advanced countries. And environmental policy is starting to look like it could be a major legacy.

As you can tell from that paragraph, a positive view of Obama depends on judging him compared to what was possible or what other presidents have done, rather than holding him up to an ideal or comparing him to your own Inauguration Day fantasies.

and let’s close with something inspiring

There are a bunch of great stories told on public radio — way more than you hear on any one public radio station — and most of the them eventually show up on the Public Radio Exchange web site. Here’s a piece, “3rd Grade Audio” from the PRX series HowSound.

Who but 3rd-grade reporters can explain the three ways to get a magnet back out, after you’ve stuck it up your nose?

Afterthought: My sister (who taught elementary grades in the Chattanooga public schools) points out that this wonderful class is happening at a private school where tuition is well over $20K per kid per year. I guess when the rich choose a school for their own kids, they don’t insist on the data-driven, teach-to-the-test model that billionaires like Bill Gates and Sam Walton’s heirs want to impose on the public schools. I wonder why not.

7 Liberal Lessons of Ebola

Disease should make us think like a species, not like rugged individualists.

One perverse aspect of the public reaction to Ebola is the way it seems to be playing politically, at least in the short run. Ebola is making people afraid, and pushing them towards the party whose central narrative is about fear and anger: the Republicans.

Republican politicians are certainly playing up this angle: exaggerating the threat, and calling for xenophobic actions to combat it — cut off contact with Africa, seal the border against … well it’s not clear against who. Candidates have been amalgamating all the current fear-objects into one nightmare narrative: ISIS terrorists are going to infect themselves with Ebola, then sneak across our southern border to spread it here.

Senator Ron Johnson and Rep. Joe Wilson have put it most bluntly, but Republican Senate candidates around the country — Scott Brown, Thom Tillis, Cory Gardner — have been highlighting the pieces of this dark fantasy and hoping voters will assemble it for themselves: Ebola, ISIS, southern border.

Like most nightmares, this one evaporates as soon as you look at it by daylight: Ebola sucks as a bio-weapon, because it’s so hard to spread, and by the time the carriers were contagious they’d mostly just want to sleep; they certainly wouldn’t be able to swim the Rio Grande or hike the Arizona desert. Except in fantasy, no one has found any links between ISIS and Mexico. And unlike Texas, Mexico has no Ebola cases so far; if anybody should want to seal the border, it should be them, not us.

But nightmares — even very, very unlikely ones — raise fear, and fear makes people vote Republican. Or at least that’s what Republicans believe.

A rational person, though, ought to become more liberal when they think about Ebola, not more conservative. Here’s why.

1. Ebola points out why we need government. Libertarian rhetoric about sovereign individuals has a lot of superficial charm. But biology knows nothing about that; humanity is a species, and sometimes we have to act as a species. We do this through government.

If you want to get some distance on these issues, I recommend reading John Barry’s The Great Influenza, about the 1918-19 epidemic that killed as many as 100 million people around the world. The cities that did well with that plague were the ones whose governments were most draconian about it. As you read, try to imagine a plague hitting Galt’s Gulch, where each sovereign ubermensch would do his own research and make up his own mind about the disease and how to handle it. I don’t think they’d do very well.

There’s a lot of thankless, profitless work involved in controlling Ebola. For example, tracking down all the people who have been in contact with an infected person, and testing or quarantining them. It’s hard to imagine a free-market system that would do this well. The most obvious libertarian system would make individuals responsible for tracking their own exposure, and if some more complicated system created a profit motive for controlling a small outbreak, waiting until it’s a larger outbreak would be even more profitable.

2. Ebola points out why we need a fully funded government. When there’s no immediate threat of disease, government agencies like the CDC look like bureaucratic waste. When Rand Paul put out a “Tea Party budget” in 2011, it included a big cut in the CDC, and virtually no explanation as to how this would affect its mission. As I explained at the time:

sometimes you don’t get even that much justification, and the cut seems to be based on little more than an ideological assumption that waste must be in there somewhere. Take the CDC again. It’s our front line against plagues and epidemics, the folks we depend on to helicopter down in astronaut suits if SARS or ebola breaks out or drug-resistant tuberculosis gets out of hand. It has a total budget of $6.342 billion in 2011, so $1.165 billion represents a 28% cut for the final 2/3 of the year (assuming Paul’s bill could be passed immediately).

How should the CDC fulfill its mission with 28% less money? Given how disastrous a mistake could be, you might hope for some kind of expert justification, maybe a new strategy based on a medical study or two. Nope. The overview just suggests “focusing on domestic priorities rather than spending billions on overseas initiatives.” So basically, the CDC should stop worrying about plagues in other countries, and wait until they show up here. In Rand Paul’s world, that kind of thinking saves money.

I quote from my 2011 article to make this point: Hindsight wasn’t necessary to grasp how misguided this was.

NIH Director Francis Collins has speculated that we’d have an Ebola vaccine by now if not for the budget cuts that did get made: The $37 million we spent on Ebola vaccine research in 2010 was down to $18 million by 2014. Various other people have pushed back against that speculation. (And then Mike the Mad Biologist pushed forward again.) But the bottom line is simple: If you could reach back in time and reverse those cuts, wouldn’t you?

Now ask yourself: How many other cuts are like that? How many other agencies not currently in the headlines are we looking at as “wasteful spending” when it’s just that we don’t personally need them right now? And is it possible that events might make us wish we’d spent more before the emergency hit?

3. Ebola points out why we need a fully staffed government. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a surgeon general about now? (Just as it would have been nice to have had an ambassador to Russia when the Ukraine thing broke out or a Turkish ambassador as we were trying to get Turkey’s cooperation in opposing ISIS.) As former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin put it:

The surgeon general is America’s doctor. Delivering information to the American people in a language they can understand. Not having one right now, you don’t have that face and that person that the American people can identify with as their doctor who’s looking out for them on a large scale.

But we don’t have one because of the NRA. President Obama nominated Dr. Vivek Murthy back in March. But it turned out that Murthy views gun violence as a public health problem. (So does the AMA.) That makes him unacceptable to the NRA, so the Senate has been unable to confirm him (and a recent Supreme Court ruling prevents Obama from installing him as a recess appointment).

It wasn’t so long ago that the Senate believed in staffing the government, without making every appointment into a political football. But today’s Republicans have blocked Obama’s appointments on principle, even when they have no issue with the nominee. If they get control of the Senate in the upcoming election, expect the government to remain understaffed at least until the next administration.

If you’ve ever worked in an understaffed department, you know what that means: Stuff falls through the cracks. When that inevitably happens, Republicans will blame “government” rather than the true culprit: understaffed government.

4. Ebola demonstrates why we need to fund foreign aid. Foreign aid is one of the most unpopular parts of the federal budget (possibly because Americans grossly overestimate how much we spend on it). But viruses point out that the world is more interconnected than our political systems account for.

Bush administration officials used to tell us that we had to fight terrorism “over there” or else we’d eventually have to fight it over here. That’s debatable when it comes to terrorism, but it’s absolutely the fact when you talk about contagious diseases.

Ebola is controllable — previous outbreaks have been controlled, and the world has gone entire years without new cases. But ultimately it has to be controlled at the source, in west Africa.

Now widen your view a little: Anyplace in the world where people are living in unhealthy and unhygienic conditions, the next super-bug might be evolving. Any population that is “off the grid” of the global medical establishment might where a pandemic gets rolling before anyone notices.

5. The specter of a deadly infection demonstrates why we need universal health care. Conservative rhetoric revolves around individuals, and in particular how wrong it is to “give” individuals benefits — like health care — that they haven’t “earned”. Such individuals become “dependent on government” and take money away from “job creators”. It’s even worse if some of those benefits reach people who entered the country illegally or stayed past the expiration of their visas.

But when an infection gets loose, you want everybody who might be sick to seek treatment. You don’t want them to stay away from doctors because they can’t pay, or avoid the emergency room for fear of being deported, or not tell anybody about that undocumented cousin they might have infected.

I’m still not terribly worried about the spread of Ebola in the United States. (The number of cases and the likelihood of spreading the infection are both low.) But we might not be so lucky with the next disease. That’s why we should all be tremendously grateful that (so far) ObamaCare has gotten health insurance to ten million more people, and we should be working to plug the holes in that system rather than tear it down.

If a real epidemic got rolling, where would you rather be? In Massachusetts, where the model for ObamaCare, RomneyCare, became law in 2006, and only 1.2% of the population lacks health insurance? Or in a conservative wonderland like Texas, where 24.8% — probably including the Hispanics who clean your office or work in the kitchen at your favorite restaurant — are uninsured?

6. The Ebola panic demonstrates the danger of legitimizing conspiracy theories. During a plague, you need affected people to cooperate with the containment plan — seek treatment, accept quarantine, and report all their contacts truthfully — while unaffected people stay calm rather than doing panicky, stupid things. That’s when it’s important that the country trust its scientific establishment and its government.

Now of course it is important that the media and the political process police the trustworthiness of both those institutions. On those rare occasions when scientists fake data, they should be exposed. When the government lies, the media should investigate and seek the truth.

But what we’ve been seeing inside the conservative news bubble during these last six years goes way beyond that. Political opportunism has been seeking every opportunity to tear down public trust, even when — maybe especially when — the accusations are baseless.

And so, much of the public believes that the scientific community is involved in an elaborate conspiracy to promote a climate change “hoax”, or to destroy the Christian religion via the theory of evolution. So how can we believe what the doctors are telling us about Ebola?

And the Obama administration? If President Obama faked his birth certificate to hide the fact that he’s not really eligible to be president, if he’s been plotting to destroy the U.S. since he was a student, if he has a gun-confiscation plan that’s always just a month or two from implementation, if he is funding “death panels” that will decide whether your life is worth saving, if he has a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview, if he “hates white people” or “has a deep-seated hatred of white people or the white culture” … why would his administration tell us the truth about Ebola? Fox News’ resident psychologist Keith Ablow lays it out:

[Obama's] affinities, his affiliations are with [Africans]. Not us. That’s what people seem unwilling to accept. He’s their leader … we don’t have a president. We don’t have a president who has the American people as his primary interest.

This is irresponsibility on a grand scale. Every era has a lunatic fringe with paranoid notions. But this kind of stuff comes from governors, members of Congress, a news network, and lots of other folks who seem to be part of a trustworthy establishment. And major national leaders — I’m looking at you, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell — sit at the same table and humor the purveyors of this destructive nonsense.

So it’s no wonder we’re seeing all kinds of weird behavior out there: Like the school in Maine that suspended a teacher for 21 days (the incubation period of Ebola) because she’s been to Dallas. Her hotel was less than ten miles from the hospital where two nurses got infected, so how can we have her in the same room with our children? (The local news report on this mentions a local parent who believes the government has “downplayed risk factors”. I wonder where he gets his news.) Thursday, several entire schools closed in Texas and Ohio because of Ebola contagion fears.

What would happen if we were having a real epidemic? I think mobs would be roaming the streets, burning down the houses of suspected carriers — all because the conservative movement and the Republican Party have prioritized destroying Obama over maintaining public trust in trustworthy institutions.

Pandering to people’s worst instincts may seem like a political freebie. But it isn’t. There’s a big social cost to this kind of stuff. But “social cost” is one of those things that conservatives are trained not to see. And that’s a 7th reason why you should be a liberal.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Today I’m going to make the case that (if you take the time to think about it) Ebola should be a liberal issue, not a conservative one. Emotionally, it’s a conservative issue because it raises fear, and conservatism is all about taking drastic, angry action out of fear. But rationally, Ebola teaches liberal lessons: To beat this, we need to think like a society rather than like a collection of sovereign individuals. We need to think in ways unrelated to the profit motive. We need to care for the weak and helpless, even if they’re in some distant country. We need to trust in our scientists and our government, rather than react in fearful and ignorant ways.

And if you could reach back into the past and restore those CDC budget cuts, wouldn’t you do it? What other budget cuts will eventually turn out to be similarly short-sighted?

In the weekly summary, I’ll look at the Catholic Church’s Synod on the Family and what it tells about Pope Francis’ plans for change, at Paul Krugman’s case for the success of the Obama presidency, and at the Supreme Court’s mixed record on voting rights. And I’ll close with a very cute radio piece about turning third-graders into radio reporters.

Expect the Ebola piece about 10 EDT, and the summary around noon.

BTW: No Sift next week. Though if you’re near Bedford, Massachusetts on Sunday morning, you can come hear me speak.

Exaggeration

People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks.

Bruce Schneier, Beyond Fear

This week’s summary is abbreviated because the two featured articles already exceed my targeted word count. They are “Sam Harris and the Orientalization of Islam” and “Is the Battle For Same-Sex Marriage Nearly Over?

Meanwhile, August’s most popular post “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” keeps perking along. Last week it had its 150,000th page view, and is running slightly ahead of the pace of the Sift’s most popular post ever, 2012’s “The Distress of the Privileged“, now at 336K views.

This week everybody was still talking about Ebola

From googling around and talking with my wife (who specializes in risk management), I’ve concluded that risk theorists do a bad job coming up with catchy names for common fallacies. Let me suggest that the principle in the opening quote be called “the Ebola fallacy”. (If you already know a name for this, please leave a comment.)

Wednesday was the first time a person died of Ebola in the United States. Thomas Duncan (who flew here from Liberia) was also the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. (The handful of previous cases were Americans who contracted the disease in Africa, were diagnosed there, and returned to the U.S. for treatment.) Sunday, we got the first report of someone catching Ebola in this country: one of the people who treated Duncan at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.

This is about what you’d expect from a hard-to-catch disease like Ebola. As CDC Director Tom Frieden explained: “Ebola has been in existence for decades—and has predominantly infected remote areas lacking basic health infrastructure.”

And yet, from the public reaction you’d think Ebola was the biggest health problem in the country. It’s all over the news. Lakeland Industries, which makes hazmat suits, has seen its stock soar 160% this month. Republican political candidates are citing the Ebola threat to support clamping down on the Mexican border. (So far there have been no Ebola cases in Central America. But when Republicans think about disease-carriers, Hispanics leap to mind.) And three Democrats joined 24 Republican members of Congress in calling for banning travelers from western Africa, and possibly quarantining Americans for three weeks after they return from western Africa .

And that’s just the reaction from people who are trying to look respectable. The conspiracy theorists are going completely crazy. “The CDC is working with Border Patrol authorities and the Department of Homeland Security to disappear potential Ebola victims attempting to cross the border into the United States.”

Meanwhile, about 700 Americans die in traffic accidents each week.

Want to be safer and live longer? Use seat belts. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink and drive. Eat better. Get the sleep you need. Exercise regularly. And if you need any additional motivation not to touch the bodily fluids of people who are visibly ill, maybe then you should think about Ebola. But stop obsessing about distant-but-horrible threats that have almost no chance of affecting you.

and the Senate

A few months ago, the political experts thought they understood the battle for the Senate: It would come down to four races where incumbent Democrats elected in 2008 were trying to hang on in a state Obama lost in 2012: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina. If Democrats held two of those seats, they’d hold the Senate.

Things have gone crazy since then. Independent candidates are threatening supposedly secure Republican seats in Kansas and South Dakota. Republican challengers are running stronger than expected in Colorado and Iowa (despite the fact that the Iowa candidate is a loon). And Democratic challengers who were expected to fade in Georgia and Kentucky are stubbornly making a race of it.

Don’t expect me to sort it out. Just vote, keep working for your favorite candidates, and be prepared for anything on Election Night.

and you also might be interested in …

Grist‘s David Roberts rains on the parade of those who think they’ve found a way to talk to conservatives about climate change.

Clever messages that work on polls and in labs will only do their work if they can penetrate the bubble. Until you solve that dilemma, you can’t say you’ve found a way to appeal to conservatives, not in the real world, anyway.

And even if you can get some message through the bubble, can you get a true message through?

There’s a message on climate change that appeals to conservatives: We can confine ourselves to market mechanisms, we don’t need to raise taxes or regulate anything or redistribute any wealth, we can all make money. If we act on climate change, the socioeconomic and cultural systems you know can be preserved. There’s a message that works, but it is a lie.


The International Secret Intelligence Service is changing its name.


Another week, another clueless Republican ad aimed at women.

And let’s close with a economics lesson

Is the Battle For Same-Sex Marriage Nearly Over?

I hated last summer’s Windsor decision. That is, I loved the result — the Defense of Marriage Act overturned — but I hated Justice Kennedy’s mushy legal logic. What did the decision mean? How would it apply to anything beyond the specific case in front of the Court? How would it apply to state bans on same-sex marriage?

Lower-court judges wondered too. As he was striking down Oklahoma’s ban in January, Judge Terence Kern placed a subtle barb into his decision:

This Court has gleaned and will apply two principles from Windsor.

I unpacked that statement like this:

Ordinarily, a lower-court judge just “applies” principles from a higher-court ruling, rather than having to “glean” them first.

Nevertheless, judges all over the country were managing to glean something similar out of Windsor. In one federal district after another — Indiana, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin — state same-sex marriage bans were going down. The states were appealing those decisions to the Supreme Court, but the Court did not necessarily have to make a ruling, because so far the appellate court rulings were unanimously against the state bans. If one district found them constitutional and another unconstitutional, the Supremes would have to step in. But so far that hadn’t happened.

On Monday, the Court announced that it would take advantage of its right to remain silent: It was refusing to hear the appeals. That instantly established marriage equality in the appealing states, and made virtually automatic its extension to other states in the same appellate districts: Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming. (The near-automatic ruling in North Carolina happened Friday. Thursday, West Virginia officials dropped their case rather than waste time losing.)

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which comprises much of the Northwest, will hear cases involving Idaho, Nevada, and Hawaii soon. Alaska’s ban went down Sunday, so it might be added to that hearing.

When the dust settles fairly soon, gays and lesbians will be allowed to marry in 30 states — 35 if the 9th Circuit joins the appellate-court consensus. Can anything stop its extension to the whole country before long?

The politics of the Supreme Court. One of the intriguing facts about the Court’s non-decision is that hearing an appeal only requires the approval of four justices, not the five it would take for the appeal to succeed. The Court’s four most conservative members — Roberts, Scalia, Alito, and Thomas — all dissented in Windsor and presumably believe in the constitutionality of state same-sex marriage bans. If they had stuck together, they could have agreed to hear the appeals. That would have stopped the spread of marriage equality at least until the Court ruled, maybe as late as June.

The only reason not to take that course is the fear that they would lose, and that Justice Kennedy would join the Court’s liberal justices — Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Breyer, and Kagan — in establishing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Similarly, the four liberal justices could have accepted the appeal and gone for the win rather than for the sizable advance the non-decision represents.

All the justices — especially Kennedy — might want the battle for marriage to play out in a more gradual, more organic way, rather than ending it in a quick thrust with the Court’s fingerprints on the knife.

And both sides can keep their victory scenarios alive, though the conservative victory scenario is shakier: If they can’t convince Kennedy to join them, the conservative justices have to hope a Republican wins the White House in 2016 and has a chance to replace Kennedy or a liberal judge with a conservative.

Nationally, marriage equality has substantial momentum, so a decision upholding it becomes less controversial by the day. And if the Court never decides, in the long run the political process will.

The legal debate. Reading the post-Windsor lower-court decisions, one conclusion is inescapable: The anti-gay side has run out of ammunition. In case after case, they have had no better strategy than to trot out the same arguments all the previous courts rejected, and hope that this judge will be more sympathetic to their cause.

Way back in Lawrence, the Supreme Court rejected the notion that mere moral disapproval (without any substantive injury to those disapproving or to society in general) was an acceptable basis for making a law (against sodomy, in that case). So “I think two men kissing is yucky” is not a rational basis for banning same-sex marriage. Similarly, “The Bible says it’s wrong” doesn’t cut it, because the Bible has no legal standing.

Since those are the actual reasons people oppose marriage equality, the legal arguments against it have always been facades. More and more, they have looked like facades, and judges have routinely knocked them down: There is zero legitimate evidence that letting same-sex couples marry harms heterosexual couples, or the children being raised by either same-sex or opposite-sex couples, or anyone else.

Looking back at the Goodridge decision (that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts in 2003), it’s striking how little has changed on the anti-gay side. The arguments that were unconvincing a decade ago are still the only ones they have.

The political debate. My prediction after Goodridge has been borne out:

Personally, I expect the same-sex marriage issue to follow the same course as interracial marriage. After a few years of Chicken-Little panic, the vast majority of Americans will recognize that the sky has not fallen, and that the new rights of homosexuals have come at the expense of no one.

Focus on the Family’s James Dobson’s predictions, on the other hand, have not fared nearly so well:

Barring a miracle, the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization itself.

Same-sex marriage has been legal in my state (New Hampshire) for almost five years. And I live just across the border from Massachusetts, where it’s been legal for a decade. If the family or Western civilization is any closer to crumbling here than in heterosexual-marriage-only states like Texas or Alabama, the signs are escaping me.

Scare tactics like Dobson’s are an all-or-nothing gamble. If you can frighten people out of trying something, they’ll never find out that your visions of doom are baseless. But as soon as somebody does try it, then the sky either falls or it doesn’t.

The sky isn’t falling. The more states that implement marriage equality and the more same-sex couples that are visibly pursuing their chance at marital happiness, the more obvious it becomes that the sky is not falling. Little Bobby’s friend Susie has two Dads or two Moms, and it’s just not a problem. You’ll never be able to explain to Bobby why you want the government to break up Susie’s family.

That’s why the poll results are so age-determined. The main people against marriage equality these days are the grandparents, who don’t have to explain stuff to Bobby.

So here’s what I expect to happen as a result of this latest expansion of marriage equality: The opposition will harden in the states affected, but it will also shrink. More and more people will have a chance to observe first-hand the absurdity of the “pro-family” scare tactics.

Here’s what I don’t expect to happen: The Republican Party will not launch a crusade to get this reversed, or play up the Republican-president-appoints-an-anti-gay-judge scenario in 2016. Because nationally, that’s a losing issue. The public has turned.

The last-ditch resistance. In “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“, I defined the Confederate worldview like this:

The essence of the Confederate worldview is that the democratic process cannot legitimately change the established social order, and so all forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified when it tries.

On the national level, conservatives can’t win this battle either legally or democratically any more, and the number of states where they could win democratically is shrinking every year. More and more, the national Republican leadership wants to talk about anything else — Ebola-infected ISIS terrorists crossing our Mexican border, maybe.

Republican strategist Alex Castellanos put it like this:

Increasingly, there is less room in the GOP for ‘big-government’ social conservatives, i.e., social conservatives who believe in using the power of the state to tell people whom they can love or marry. Instead, there is growing agreement, in an ever younger and increasingly libertarian Republican party, that the role of the state in prohibiting relationships should be minimized.

And northern Republican governors like Scott Walker and Chris Christie are happy to leave the issue behind.

But that pragmatic approach to politics doesn’t sit well with the older Confederate types. Mike Huckabee is threatening to leave the party if it doesn’t fight this. Other voices are calling for civil disobedience, though it’s not clear what form that would take.

The most outrageous response came from Pat Buchanan, who recalled resistance to an earlier act of “judicial dictatorship”:

In 1954, the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of all public schools. But when the court began to dictate the racial balance of public schools, and order the forced busing of children based on race across cities and county lines to bring it about, a rebellion arose.

Only when resistance became national and a violent reaction began did our black-robed radicals back down.

Again, it’s not clear what specific acts of violence he’s calling for.

I also cited the reaction to school desegregation as an example of Confederate tactics in the modern era. And Buchanan apparently sees that relationship too (though he views it positively). He ends his article with a quote from Robert Lewis Dabny’s 1867 book A Defense of Virginia.

American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. … Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious, for the sake of the truth, and has no idea of being guilty of the folly of martyrdom.

Buchanan is arguing against conservatives who believe that the debate about same-sex marriage is over. Dabny was arguing — after the end of the Civil War — with those who thought that the debate about slavery was over. Dabny was a prophet of the insurgency that ultimately won Reconstruction for the South and established Jim Crow.

And he’s an example that Buchanan wants to emulate.

Sam Harris and the Orientalization of Islam

The argument about Islam between Ben Affleck and Sam Harris on Bill Maher’s HBO show Real Time brought to mainstream attention a phenomenon that’s been simmering for a long time: Islam brings out something ugly in many of the most vocal atheists like Harris and Maher.

Part of the problem is obvious in the staging: Maher has arranged the show in such a way that the onus of defending non-jihadi Muslims falls not on some prominent Islamic leader, or even on a rank-and-file Muslim, but on Ben Affleck, an actor who (as far as I know) has no connection to Islam. Affleck occupies a position that I occasionally find myself in (usually with regard to political issues like Birtherism) and thoroughly hate: He recognizes that the conversation is taking an ugly turn, and he’s completely unprepared to respond to it, but everyone else is just letting it go. He boils over not because he thinks he is the right person to have this argument, but because he’s the one who’s here.

Probably this post has already gotten three comments from people who have read no further and are shocked that I’m taking Affleck’s (and Islam’s) side over Harris and Maher. The Weekly Sift has a substantial atheist/agnostic readership, and for good reason: I’m a consistent defender of the wall of separation between Church and State, and I fight back against the attempts by right-wing American Christians to subvert concepts like religious freedom. Whether or not I am an atheist myself depends on your definitions, but a major theme of my explicitly religious writing and public speaking (like this recent example) is how someone with a secular worldview can get the benefits claimed for traditional religion (serenity in the face of death, for example) without accepting its doctrines.

Plus, I’m usually a Bill Maher fan. (Though don’t expect me to defend him segueing out of a Sarah Palin joke with “speaking of dumb twats“.) I’ve linked to a number of his New Rule rants, and used a Maher quote to lead off the Sift as recently as September 29.

So, Harris and Maher might ask, what’s up with me? Why do I have what Joseph Farah has called the “liberal blind spot on Islam“? Here’s how Harris made that case on Real Time:

We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people.

Maher had introduced the segment like this:

Liberals need to stand up for liberal principles. … Like freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion you want without fear of violence, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, equality for minorities (including homosexuals). These are liberal principles that liberals applaud for, but then when you say “In the Muslim world, this is what’s lacking” — then they get upset.

The discussion that follows largely misses what I think is the main point, and in that sense it resembles those why-don’t-you-care-about-black-on-black-crime discussions that followed the shootings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. Statistics are quoted (“78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonist should have been prosecuted”, much like “[blacks make up] 50% of homicide victims in this country, and 90 percent of those victims are killed by other black people.”), and many true facts are stated — but stated within a frame that already embodies the offensive content. “This is based on reality, Ben,” Maher insists. “We’re not making this up.”

Nicholas Kristof does push back in the right direction:

This does have the tinge, a little bit, of the way white racists talk about African Americans.

But, like Affleck, he isn’t prepared well enough to unpack that idea.

Let me give it a shot. The problem here is the one that Edward Said wrote the entire book Orientalism about: The privileged outsider encloses some large group of diverse “others” inside a conceptual fence, gives the enclosure a name like “the Orient” or “the Muslim world”, and then takes it on himself to pronounce what the defining essence of that fenced-off region is.

Remember when Cliven Bundy said, “I want to tell you one thing I know about the Negro”? It doesn’t really matter where Bundy goes from there. The racism is already built into the idea that there is such a being as “the Negro”, and that a white man like Bundy is qualified to make pronouncements about the defining characteristics of “the Negro”.

Now look at what Harris snuck into the Islamophobia quote above: “the doctrine of Islam”. To Harris, Islam is not a cacophony of people who have been arguing with each other since the 7th century. It’s one thing. It has a unified body of doctrine, and Harris can tell you what that doctrine is. And if there are people who consider themselves Muslims but disagree with whatever Harris defines from the outside as the essence of Islam, well, too bad for them.

Harris’ rhetoric is shot through with this orientalist framing. Elsewhere in the conversation he maps it out:

Just imagine some concentric circles here. You have at the center, you have jihadists. These are people who wake up in the morning wanting to kill apostates, wanting to die trying. They believe in Paradise. They believe in martyrdom. Outside of them we have Islamists. These are people who are just as convinced of martyrdom, and Paradise, and wanting to foist their religion on the rest of humanity, but they want to work within the system. They’re not going to blow themselves up on a bus. They want to change governments. They want to use democracy against itself. Those two circles are arguably 20% of the Muslim world. … But outside of that circle you have conservative Muslims, who can honestly look at ISIS and say: “That does not represent us. We’re horrified by that.” But they hold views about human rights, about women, about homosexuals that are deeply troubling.

Look what he’s done there: Jihadists are the real Muslims. They’re at the center. The further you are from being a jihadist, the fringier your Islam is.

So the question of who is a real Muslim, and what makes someone a real Muslim — that’s not something for Muslims to wrangle out among themselves, it’s for a hostile outsider to pronounce. That’s where the bigotry is. Statistics about how many people fall into Harris’ concentric circles are irrelevant. The bigotry has already been baked into the circle-drawing itself.

In case that point went past you, Harris underlines it later on:

There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS, and we need to defend these people, prop them up, and let them reform their faith.

So if you think you’re a Muslim, but you don’t support ISIS or want to kill apostates, your Islam is just “nominal” and you “don’t take the faith seriously”. It doesn’t matter if you’re an imam and have devoted your life to your vision of Islam and your relationship with Allah; you’re not “serious”. Because it’s up to Sam Harris to decide what “serious” Islam is. And, like a colonial governor of hostile natives, he’s going to “prop up” the people he has identified as not “serious” about the native culture.

Harris ought to be old enough to remember the final decade or so of the Cold War — the era when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance — when similarly vicious framing was used against atheists: Soviet Communists were the real atheists. Secular humanists might nominally be atheists, but they were just fellow-traveling dupes of the Soviet Communists.

If you lived through that, you shouldn’t want to do it to anybody else.

Such manipulation of categories and essences is a fundamental flaw in all of Harris’ writing, as I pointed out when I reviewed The End of Faith for UU World magazine in 2006. He implicitly assumes from the outset that fundamentalism is the essence of religion. This isn’t a conclusion he draws from facts, it’s the a priori conceptual framework into which facts are placed.

The End of Faith presents contemporary religious debate as an argument between fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden or Pat Robertson and atheists like Harris. Everyone else is a “moderate” — wishy-washy people who don’t have the intellectual integrity to choose between fundamentalism and atheism. The message of The End of Faith is that “moderates” need to get off the fence; by continuing to support theistic religion in any form at all, they’re empowering the fundamentalists.

When Harris argues that “moderates” do not represent the essence of their faith, he quotes scripture — just as a fundamentalist would. He accepts without question or examination the fundamentalist assertion that a faith is defined by a literal interpretation of its scripture.

A more mature view of religion is contained in another book I reviewed for UU World: James Carse’ The Religious Case Against Belief. To Carse, Christianity is the conversation that Jesus began, not a belief system laid down by Jesus and recorded once-and-for-all in the New Testament. Likewise, Islam is not the Quran, it is the sum total of conversations the Quran has inspired. The Bible and the Quran are central cyclones of mystery that over the centuries have spun off any number of belief systems, each of which has its day in the sun and then eventually crashes, as all human belief systems must.

This is not some bizarre notion unique to Carse. In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel The Penitent, the novel’s ultra-orthodox narrator announces a similar opinion: that the highest form of Judaism was not the one Moses brought down from Sinai with the Torah, but the Judaism that developed after millennia of discussion about the Torah.

Harris’ failing isn’t that he has gotten the essence of Islam (or of religion in general) wrong. (This is another key point of Orientalism.) It’s that religion is a complex human phenomenon that can’t be reduced to a single essence. There is nothing to know about “the Negro” or about the Orient or Islam or Judaism or religious people in general. These are all conceptual fences that enclose diverse populations, not natural categories that each have a unique Platonic essence. So you can quote all the statistics you want about, say, the size of Jewish noses. But that caricature of the big-nosed Jew is still anti-Semitic.

So finally, what should we make of the claim that “you can’t criticism Islam” or “you can’t criticize religion”? First, note it’s resemblance to the common claim by white conservatives that they can’t criticize President Obama without being called racists. If you look at the specific instances they point to, it’s usually not that hard to see something racist going on. And the airwaves seem to be full of criticism of President Obama; lots of people manage it without sounding racist. Conservatives should learn to see what separates racist criticism of Obama from non-racist criticism of Obama, not squawk because somebody thinks they’re racists.

The reason to pause before you criticize Islam or religion isn’t that these topics are or should be surrounded by some special aura of protection. It’s that there’s really no such thing as Islam or religion, at least not in the sense that most critics would like to assume.

Want to criticize something that people do, like when families murder their own girls in “honor killings“? By all means criticize that. Want to point out that many such murderers justify themselves by pointing their Muslim faith? That’s fine. (Of course, you might also point out that the problem appears in other religions too, and that many other Muslims disagree with the killings.) What you shouldn’t do, though, is set yourself up as the Pope of Islam and pronounce that the killers are the “real” Muslims and their critics are just “nominal” Muslims.

Vlad Chituc, who writes for a very good secularist blog called NonProphet Status, has an excellent set of suggestions for criticizing religion effectively and without orientalizing it. One of them resembles what I’ve been saying here:

You also have to be appropriately specific: if you say that Christianity is sexist, and your friend practices a form of Christianity that isn’t, then there is a discrepancy you need to address. Is it the Bible that is sexist? Or just certain passages? Are they being interpreted in the same ways? Suddenly the conversation gets more productive and detached from a facet of their core identity.

… I occasionally hear various sorts of essentialist arguments where it’s claimed that religions just are their holy books. That seems obviously wrong to me: no one would say that Christianity is anti-fig because Jesus cursed a fig-tree in Mark, and no one would say that a pro-fig Christian isn’t even really Christian because of their position on figs. I don’t see why we ought to treat passages about homosexuality any different.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week’s Sift is heavy on featured articles and light on the weekly summary. The first featured article is my response to the much-discussed Sam Harris/Ben Affleck argument on Bill Maher’s Real Time: “Sam Harris and the Orientalization of Islam”. I expect to get roasted for this in the comments, because I know Sam Harris is a special hero of some of the Sift’s regular readers. But I gotta call ‘em like I see ‘em.

That article is ready to go and should post right after the Teaser.

In the second article, “Is the Battle For Same-Sex Marriage Nearly Over?”, I look at the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the appeals of several states who had their bans on same-sex marriage overturned by lower courts. It’s easy — and I think probably right — to view this as a tipping point. When the dust settles over the next few months, same-sex marriage will be legal in 30 states. The Court doesn’t want to get too far out in front of public opinion, but the legal, political, and social momentum all run in the same direction. Expect to see that article at maybe 10 or 10:30 EDT.

In the summary, I continue to marvel at the Ebola panic. Exactly one person has caught Ebola inside the United States, and it has become the only health problem we talk about. Also, predicting the 2014 Senate races has become almost impossible, with supposedly safe seats on both sides suddenly looking uncertain. I’ll try to get that out by noon.

The Chinese Menu

We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but … the powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.

– Benjamin R. Barber, Consumed

This wee

This week everybody was talking about Hong Kong

Protests continue in Hong Kong, but they seem to be shrinking. The basic issue is simple: Rather than allow Hong Kong to choose its own leaders through elections (under what has been known as the “One Country, Two Systems” policy), the Chinese government wants limit voters to the choices it nominates. I’m reminded of a couplet from a song by Cake:

Some people drink Pepsi, some people drink Coke.
The wacky morning DJ says democracy’s a joke.

I’m rooting for the protesters, but it’s going to be embarrassing if China does the Occupy thing better than America. Here’s something else that I expect to embarrass me: If the government puts the hammer down, I’m sure they’ll justify themselves by pointing to how our cops dealt with our Occupy protesters.

Remember this guy?

and Ebola

The U.S. has its first case of Ebola, a man who flew here from Liberia. But as it says on the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Don’t Panic.”

Let’s start with the basics: Ebola is not something you catch easily, like the flu. You can’t get it through the air; you have to be in physical contact with an infected person or his/her bodily fluids. You typically don’t catch it from people who aren’t showing symptoms yet, the way you might catch a cold.

If you get it, it’s nasty. It kills about 60% of the people infected. It’s a virus, so antibiotics don’t work. Some people have been cured, but there’s no well-established magic bullet. But it’s also not like the Black Death or the Spanish Flu. It’s not going to sweep the country overnight and kill us all.

There have been a number of outbreaks over the years in Africa, because it lives there in bats, apes, and a few other wild species, and humans can catch it from handling an animal corpse or eating the undercooked meat of an infected animal. (Have you eaten any raw bats lately? Good. Stay away from Ozzy Osborne.) Outbreaks among humans normally get contained — even in densely populated parts of Africa that have inadequate medical systems — by good hygiene protocols.

Ebola can completely disappear from humans for years at a time. For example, there were zero recorded cases of Ebola in 2005 or 2006.

So as I was saying, the odds of a pandemic in the U.S. are pretty small.

But the idea of Ebola is scary, so opportunists are using it as an excuse to do what they want to do anyway: keep foreigners out of the country. As a representative from the anti-immigration scare group the Center for Immigration Studies wrote:

Our government must simply deny admission to any non-U.S. citizen who has been in the afflicted countries in the recent past, until the crisis is over. The most fundamental purpose of immigration controls is to protect our homeland, and our leaders must end their chronic reluctance to use them.

Shame on the NYT for giving CIS a platform. As the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out:

[CIS's] studies have hardly been neutral. One of them concludes that because foreign women (“Third World gold-diggers”) can obtain work permits by marrying American citizens, it’s obvious that fraudulent marriage applications are “prevalent among terrorists.” Another claims that because many immigrants have worked in Georgia since 2000, it’s clear that unemployment among less educated native workers is up. A third says that because immigration levels have been high recently, immigrants make up a growing share of those drawing welfare.

But every one these claims, each of them at the heart of a different recent report from CIS, are either false or virtually without any supporting evidence. That came to fore again last September, when CIS organized a panel to accompany the release of yet another new report, this one claiming that municipalities in substantial numbers were permitting non-citizens to vote. When challenged, the panelists could only come up with a single possible example of the purported trend.

“CIS’ attempts to blame immigrants for all of the U.S.’s problems have been laughable,” said Angela Kelley of the Immigration Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.

and Eric Holder’s successor

A Huffington Post article suggests a number of qualified people. But one nutty idea making the rounds is that President Obama should name a Republican.

naming an attorney general from the opposite party would tend to make the administration of justice bipartisan, and would provide considerable reassurance, as Holder’s tenure in office emphatically did not, that the powers of law enforcement were not being abused in service of partisan ends.

The model here is what FDR did during the lead-up to World War II: name Republican Harry Stimson as Secretary of War. By doing this, Roosevelt was pointing out that defending the country was really not a partisan issue.

But the administration of justice is a partisan issue, because Republicans do not want to enforce civil right or voting rights laws. (Neither party has the audacity to enforce antitrust laws against our corporate masters, but that’s a different article.) Find me a Republican who will stand up for the right of Texas Hispanics to vote, or who wants to do something about the racial injustice that makes our prisons overwhelmingly black, and then we can talk.

and the Secret Service

Like Ebola, you might think the Secret Service would be beyond partisanship, because we all agree that our president and his family should be kept safe. Guess again. Speaker of the North Carolina House and Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis:

It’s just another example of failures in this administration. They need to start getting serious about homeland security and national security.

Yep. President Obama is not “serious” about protecting himself or his family against assassination.

but not enough people are talking about jobs

If they were, President Obama would be more popular. The latest job report was good, and the unemployment rate fell below 6% for the first time since the housing bubble collapsed at the end of the Bush administration.

A month out from the fall elections, the headlines have turned away from pocketbook issues like the success of ObamaCare, the economy’s improvement, or proposals to raise the minimum wage. The federal deficit has fallen from $1.4 trillion in FY 2009 to a projected $500 billion in FY2014. But who’s paying attention? Instead, we’re focused on fear issues like ISIS and Ebola. This can’t be good for Democrats.

and you also might be interested in …

Can’t anybody spell these days? If there’s a coven of these people, I really worry about what they might inadvertently conjure up. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man was bad enough.


So: It is possible to convict a white man of murdering a black teen in Florida. William Dunn is guilty and faces life in prison, even though Jordan Davis was 17, black, and in an SUV with other young black men. The jury determined that playing music too loud in a gas station parking lot was not a sufficient provocation. A previous jury had deadlocked.


The Daily Mail explains in one map how children’s freedom to roam has collapsed in recent generations. If this continues, the next generation of kids will never leave their homes without adult supervision.


So in the future we’re going to be competing with a major economic power in which all universities are tuition-free.

“Tuition fees are socially unjust,” said Dorothee Stapelfeldt, senator for science in Hamburg, which scrapped charges in 2012.

“They particularly discourage young people who do not have a traditional academic family background from taking up studies. It is a core task of politics to ensure that young women and men can study with a high quality standard free of charge in Germany.”

In particular, young Americans of the 99%, your German rivals are not starting their careers in debt slavery. States here in America used to do something similar, back before the Reagan Revolution. If your parents went to a state university, ask them how much it cost.


You have until Halloween to submit your entry to National Geographic’s annual photo contest. The Atlantic provides 32 examples of what you’ll be up against.

 

and let’s close with something incredible

When wolves returned to Yellowstone after a 70-year absence, they didn’t just change the bio-system, they changed the geography.

A Conservative-to-English Lexicon, 2nd edition

Preface to the Second Edition

The popularity and inadequacy of the First Edition led its readers to submit many terms which had unfortunately been overlooked. While still far from complete, the Second Edition (I hope) will make far more Conservative speech comprehensible to non-residents of the conservative echo chamber.

But before listing the terms new to the Second Edition, other comments motivate me to say a few words about the origin and intentions of the Lexicon.

Origin of the Lexicon. While researching “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“, I discovered many examples of language drift among conservatives. The great majority of the new usages are transparent, and can be easily understood by readers without my help. (When, for example, Paul Ryan says “inner city” he means “black”.) But confusion became likely when the drifting terms began to interact.

One example in particular required unpacking, because it was key to the Tea/Confederate identification: Many in the so-called Tea Party talk about their “Second Amendment rights”, by which they mean their right to the means to resist or even overthrow the government of the United States, if it should become “tyrannical”.  By itself, this seems a reasonable — some might even say laudable — goal, one in line with their identification with the original Tea Party protest against the tyranny of George III.

However, when I then looked into the current conservative usage of tyranny, I discovered that it has virtually nothing to do with George III, or even with the more recent Hitler/Stalin models that most Americans picture when they hear the word. Instead, tyranny refers to the implementation of any progressive policy at all — ObamaCare, immigration reform, cap and trade, taxation with representation, and many others — even when that policy is enacted via the constitutional process of our duly elected representatives passing legislation. Tyranny even includes any proposed gun control measures, no matter how slight, which completes a vicious cycle: We can’t have gun control, because we will need our guns to overthrow the tyranny of gun control.

Fully translated, then, the Tea Party’s Second Amendment rhetoric amounts to: We need the means to resist or overthrow the government of the United States, in case liberals win too many elections and start implementing the agenda they were elected on.

That sounds a lot different.

Intention of the Lexicon. Some of the First Edition’s commenters seemed to be interpreting the Lexicon as a work of mockery, born out of frustration, bitterness, or anger. This response was independent of ideology: Some conservatives felt themselves victims of a bitter, angry attack, while some liberals expressed satisfaction with an expression of their own frustration and bitterness, which I presumably shared.

This is a misinterpretation. The Lexicon should be read as a light-hearted presentation of a serious message. If, while reading, you find yourself feeling bitter or angry — either at me or at conservatives — I recommend taking a walk. The extreme strain of conservatism found in America today is only one of life’s many absurdities. If the absurdity of life makes you angry, let me suggest that you are suffering from what the Buddhists call attachment. Life is life; your anger is irrelevant to it. (If you are monotheistic, let me put it differently: God clearly tolerates life’s absurdity; you should too.)

However, the light-heartedness of the Lexicon doesn’t mean that it is nothing but a joke. A non-bitter, non-angry response of: “Wow, this is way more fucked up than I thought!” — similar, I imagine, to how biologists felt when they discovered the platypus — is completely appropriate, and mirrors the attitude I had while compiling the Lexicon.

Seriousness of the Lexicon. The light-heartedness of the Lexicon should not be misread as mere mockery, in which the mocker attaches to his target whatever negative images might stick. The Lexicon is serious. The intention of the definitions is to match the actual usage of terms within the conservative echo chamber, thereby interpreting conservative statements in ways that are more coherent, more comprehensible, and more likely to be true than when those statements are interpreted in standard English.

For example, the frequently uttered syllables, “Obama is a Marxist” are gibberish if Marxist is interpreted in the literal English sense of “a proponent of the philosophy of Karl Marx”. Actual Marxists believe that Obama represents their eternal enemy: the Wall Street capitalists. Just this week, I found this Obama-resenting comment in The Socialist Worker:

If liberals learn anything from the bitter taste Obamaism left in their mouths, it should be that ‘progressive’ and ‘populist’ talk from politicians is cheap–especially when they’re running for office.

However, if you look at the full usage of Marxist among conservatives and consider what all the people they classify as Marxists have in common — Elizabeth Warren, Jim Wallis, Thomas Piketty, Paul Krugman, Harry Reid, anybody involved in Occupy Wall Street, etc. — you get the definition I presented in the First Edition: “one who regrets the increasing concentration of wealth.” Using that definition, “Obama is a Marxist” is coherent, comprehensible, and probably true.

This combination of light-heartedness and seriousness has a fine tradition, going back at least to Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary from 1906. Look, for example at Bierce’s definition of aboriginies: “Persons of little worth found cumbering the soil of a newly discovered country.” Or peace: “In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.”

Bierce was not simply trying to be funny. He was pointing to incongruities between the definitions in a standard dictionary and the actual usage of words in his era. So am I.

Terms New to the Second Edition

The Second Edition incorporates all the terms found in the First Edition and adds the following:

Activist judge. A judge who applies the Constitution and other laws, rather than the Bible or the Constitution written by the Founding Fathers.

Amnesty. The basic English meaning is unchanged since Bierce: “The state’s magnanimity to those offenders whom it would be too expensive to punish.” In conservative usage, amnesty is an abandonment of all moral standards if applied to undocumented immigrants, but “makes perfect sense” when applied to corporate profits held off-shore to avoid taxes. To spin amnesty positively, use holiday. Example: a tax holiday, but not an immigration holiday.

Bankrupt. Requiring taxes that the wealthy do not want to pay. Usage: “The government is bankrupt.”

Celebrity. A disparaging term applied to a liberal who can draw a crowd. Usage: Barack Obama “is the biggest celebrity in the world.” Not to be confused with a politician who is popular in Real America, like Sarah Palin, or with statesmen like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Ronald Reagan.

Class warfare. When the 99% fight back against the 1%. Usage: “Obama’s priority is class warfare.  That’s why he relentlessly denounces job creators as ‘millionaires and billionaires.’ That’s why he demands that they be punished with higher tax rates.”

Collateral damage. Humans whose deaths would rattle the conscience of a nation not blessed with American exceptionalism.

Common sense. The opinion of the People, as opposed to the opinion of experts who have devoted their lives to studying the subject. See: science, junk science.

Common sense solution. A (usually unspecified) way to make a problem vanish without inconveniencing any job creators or real Americans, or making them pay taxes. Usage: “All across this country, women are standing up and speaking out for common sense solutions.”

Contract. An inviolable pledge, except when made to a union.

Dividing the country. Starting a class war by encouraging the 99% to fight back. Usage: President Obama “won by dividing the country.”

Elite, Elitist. Those who challenge common sense by insisting on facts. Usage: “The power of the knowledge elite does not stem primarily from money, but in persuading, instructing and regulating the rest of society.”

Family. A group of people related by blood to, and under the control of, straight white man wealthy and powerful enough to protect and control them.

Holiday. A temporary suspension of tyranny. Usage: “tax holiday

Illegal immigrants (or illegals). Hispanics. Usage: “the more illegals that vote, the better the Obama administration thinks it will do.”

Impeachable offenses. Anything President Obama does or fails to do.

Impeachment. A means of reversing elections, when voters mistakenly choose Democrats. Established by the Constitution, impeachment requires impeachable offenses.

Junk science. Research not funded by a corporation whose profits depend on the outcome. Examples: climate research not funded by fossil fuel companies, tobacco research not funded by cigarette companies, etc. All you really need to know about the term is that JunkScience.com is run by Steve Milloy, who is also Director of External Policy and Strategy for Murray Energy, the largest privately owned American coal company. Usage: “It’s just an excuse for more government control of your life. I’ve never been for any [greenhouse-gas reducing] scheme or even accepted the junk science behind the whole [climate change] narrative.” See sound science.

Lucky Ducky. Anyone whose income is low enough to escape the punishment of income tax. Collectively, lucky duckies are known as “the 47%“. Usage: “Who are these lucky duckies? They are the beneficiaries of tax policies that have expanded the personal exemption and standard deduction and targeted certain voter groups by introducing a welter of tax credits for things like child care and education.”

The People (or We the People). All real Americans, considered collectively. Usage: “I believe Owen Hill is one of those future leaders and must be supported by ‘we the people’ to take back our country and to restore our constitution as the law of the land.”

Personhood. A quality shared by fertilized ova and corporations, but not by Afghans, Iraqis, or Pakistanis who become collateral damage. Usage: “Corporations are people, my friend.”

Punishing success. Restoring upper-level tax rates to their levels during the Clinton administration, a dark time of peace and prosperity when no one bothered to become rich because it was too painful. Usage: “If you want to punish successful people, vote for Democrats.” Synonym: punishing job creators. Usage: “We shouldn’t be punishing job creators.”

Rammed through Congress. Passed by majority vote, without granting a extra-constitutional veto power to the conservative minority. Usage: “Senate Democrats rammed through what would later be called ObamaCare … The vote on Monday, in the dead of night, was 60 to 40.”

Rammed (or forced) down the throat of the People. Any government action taken against the will of a majority of real Americans. Usage: “They’re going to do what they have to, the Democrats are, to force this [ObamaCare] down our throats.”

Real America. Rural areas and small towns, where the majority of voters are real Americans. Usage: “the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America.”

Real American. 1. A white conservative Christian born in the United States at least 30 years ago. 2. A typical resident of real America. Usage: “Real Americans do not recognize [Obama] as a president.”

Science. 1. A religion devoted to conquering the world in the name of the No God it worships. Usage: “Science, like God in the Old Testament, behaves jealously against any other religion. So science will say to its followers: ‘You shall have no other gods before me’. If you have any doubts, try asking an audience at a scientific convention to join you in a prayer.” 2. A conspiracy to impose world government through hoaxes like global warming. Usage: “Global warming is not about science, but about politics — that is, about expanding the power of elites using the coercive instruments of government to control the lives of people everywhere.”

Social justice. A plot to turn mainstream Christian denominations Communist. Usage: “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.”

Sound science. The opposite of junk science. Coined by The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, “a front group set up by Philip Morris in 1993 … to question the science showing detrimental effects of cigarette smoke.”

States rights. 1. The belief that the 14th Amendment‘s guarantee of “the equal protection of the laws” was never intended to be taken seriously. Usage: “I believe in states’ rights … and I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment.” — said by Ronald Reagan near the site of the KKK’s Mississippi Burning murders, which were solved by federal investigators after being covered up by local police.

Take back our country. Restoring the dominance of the People. As Hank Williams Jr. sang in “Take Back Our Country“: “Move over little dog, cause the big dog’s moving in.” Usage: “It’s time to take our country back.”

Thug. 1. Young black male. Usage: “Trayvon Martin was a thug. His parents know that, you know that, I know that.” and “The Ferguson thugs aren’t alone. The overwhelming majority of violent crime across America is conducted by young, black males.” 2. An agent of government tyranny who might descend upon real Americans at any moment. Usage: “”jack-booted government thugs [who have] more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.” 3. A union organizer.

Traditional marriage. The type of marriage commonly portrayed in the media when the speaker was a child. Does not include common features of marriage from earlier eras, such as the inability of the wife to own property, the impossibility of divorce (except by act of the Pope), the right of the husband to beat his wife, or the right of the husband to take multiple wives. (Biblical marriage may not have been Adam and Steve, but it was Jacob and Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah. Don’t think too hard about why the link also has a picture of a sheep.)

The Monday Morning Teaser

I got so many good suggestions after last week’s “A Conservative Lexicon With English Translation” that I’ll be putting out the Second Edition this week. In addition to new entries, the Second Edition has a Preface that discusses origin of the Lexicon, and corrects misperceptions about the intentions behind it. It should appear around 10.

It’s been another busy week for news. In the weekly summary, I’ll talk about the Hong Kong protests, Ebola, the possible successors for Eric Holder, the Secret Service uproar, and the National Geographic Photo Contest. The closing is an amazing piece about how the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone changed not just the ecology of the park, but even its geography. Look for the summary around noon.

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