The Monday Morning Teaser

It’s time to get back to 2016 stump speeches. And yes, I know Hillary just did her first one, but I’m way behind. I’ll get to her soon. This week it’s Rick Santorum’s turn. For 2016 he’s re-branding himself as a protector of the native-born white male Christian American worker.

It seems like there’s an unusual amount to cover in the weekly summary: The House has at least temporarily blocked the TPP trade deal. A commitment of more troops to “advise” and “train” Iraqi troops fighting ISIS got lots people (i.e., me) worried about creeping into a new Iraq War. There was all the reaction to that Texas pool party. And some other stuff worth raising to your attention from John Oliver and Jay Rosen. Plus: some disturbing trends in red-state higher education. And an amazing weather photo to close on.

Figure the Santorum article to appear between 9 and 10, and the weekly summary between 11 and noon.

Keeping it Real

In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.

— Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

This week’s featured article is “What’s So Scary About Caitlyn Jenner?

This week everybody was talking about Caitlyn Jenner

My article on Jenner focuses on where I think my own discomfort and the social-conservative vitriol come from. But there’s a whole other argument going on among liberals about whether transsexualism conflicts with feminism. Elinor Burkett argues in the NYT that it often does:

By defining womanhood the way he did to Ms. Sawyer, Mr. Jenner and the many advocates for transgender rights who take a similar tack … undermine almost a century of hard-fought arguments that the very definition of female is a social construct that has subordinated us.

But Slate‘s Amanda Marcotte isn’t having it.

Unfortunately, writer Elinor Burkett (last seen crashing the stage at the Oscars) brought along for the ride one of the worst tendencies of academia: highly intellectualized arguments made in bad faith. … Here’s an idea: Why don’t we call a truce and let ordinary people express themselves without lighting their asses on fire for not sounding like they’re reading out of a doctoral thesis?

As I understand it, the gist of the dispute is whether the transsexual experience undermines the notion that femininity is socially constructed rather than inborn. (Jenner, after all, has been treated like a male for a lifetime. Why didn’t that take?) And I guess I agree with Marcotte: that’s a topic for a research paper, not an op-ed. The apparent disjunction strikes me as an anomaly that some wise person should carefully explain, not a contradiction to fight over.

and the USA Freedom Act

The Electronic Frontier Foundation says it wanted more restrictions on the NSA, but

Even so, we’re celebrating. We’re celebrating because, however small, this bill marks a day that some said could never happen—a day when the NSA saw its surveillance power reduced by Congress. And we’re hoping that this could be a turning point in the fight to rein in the NSA.

The article outlines the steps that still need to be taken: More legislative provisions sunset in 2017 and shouldn’t be re-authorized, there’s an executive order they’d like rescinded, and there’s the problem of “overbroad classification” that keeps the public from knowing what its government does.

Another rising cause is the movement to drop the charges and let Edward Snowden come home. Courts have ruled that he was right: the program he exposed was illegal. The New Yorker‘s John Cassidy thinks we should be “thanking Snowden for his public service” rather than trying to lock him up.

and (still) the Duggars

The parents were interviewed by Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, who gave them a pretty soft ride. At least, that’s what people tell me; I haven’t watched more than a few seconds of it.

Amanda Marcotte focuses on the Duggars’ use of the Christian-persecution myth:

Nursing the grievances of [Fox News’] right-wing audience is big business. Its audience wants to hear all about how the meanie liberals are picking on this cute little Christian family for an itty-bitty multimonth rampage of child molesting.

Caryn Riswald explains how the opposite is true: The Duggars’ career in general and this issue in particular make good examples not Christian persecution, but of Christian privilege.

Like white and male privileges, Christian privilege affords members of a status-group the ability to do and get away with things that those who are not members of that group could not. It is unearned and unseen, affording advantages that holders of it can actively deny existing, yet count on every day. Examples of things a Christian can assume because of this privilege: Adherence to my religion will be seen as an asset; I can wear symbols of my religion without being accused of terrorism; I know that my workplace calendar respects my religious holidays and Sabbath. We can add to that list: My religious identity will help me escape punishment for criminal activity.

and getting ready for the Supreme Court to rule on marriage

Tom Delay says “all Hell is going to break loose” if the Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality. He pledges “to stand for marriage even if it takes civil disobedience.”

I’m having trouble picturing which laws he’s planning to disobey. If you google “civil disobedience against gay marriage” you can get all kinds of pledges and petitions and whatnot. But they’re all a little vague about how the campaign would work. Your neighbor’s marriage doesn’t really need your cooperation, so refusing to cooperate with it doesn’t accomplish much.

Here’s Glenn Beck interviewing the organizer of “The Future Conference: what you thought was coming … is here now“. Beck says he believes 10,000 pastors “are willing to lay it all down on the table and willing to go to jail or go to death because they serve God and not man.”

I’m not sure who these 10,000 pastors expect to kill them. What I fear is that having gotten all revved up and then discovering there actually are no jack-booted troops coming, the Right is going to create violent incidents of its own.


Another possible response to the Court: Secede from the Union. Joseph Farah, editor-in-chief of World Net Daily, explains what a bonanza secession could be for any state that could pull it off:

I know there are millions of Christians, Jews and others who would pull up stakes and move to another country that honored the institution of marriage as it was designed by God – a union between one man and one woman. … Is there one state in 50 that would not only defy the coming abomination, but secede in response? The rewards could be great. I would certainly consider relocating. How about you? … We need a Promised Land. We need an Exodus strategy.

He’s ignoring, of course, all the people who would immediately leave his theocratic utopia. (I would expect the net population flow to be out rather than in.) But I think the interesting question is: Should the rest of care?

I mean, suppose one of the redder states — maybe Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Mississippi, or some combination thereof — decides to become the New Israel for people who can’t stand the idea of continuing to be Americans after marriage equality becomes the law of the land. Suppose the seceding state(s) even agree to reasonable conditions: (1) a period of time for people to move in and out freely before either side closes the border; (2) assuming a fair share of the national debt; (3) letting the U.S. military remove any WMDs before turning over its bases; and maybe some others I haven’t thought of yet — nothing punitive, just making sure they’re not taking advantage of the rest of us.

In that scenario, I’m not seeing a reason to go all Abe Lincoln on them and force them back into the Union. What do the rest of you think?

and you also might be interested in …

Last week I neglected to cover all the new presidential candidates, and it will be a while before my 2016 Stump Speech Series can catch up. The new announcements include Democrats Martin O’Malley, and Lincoln Chafee; and Republicans Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum. The total number of candidates is up to ten Republicans and four Democrats. The NYT projects the ultimate numbers will be five Democrats and 15 Republicans — and they don’t count Donald Trump, who will announce something June 16.

Part of the difference is that Jeb Bush is not as popular among Republicans as Hillary Clinton is among Democrats, so his candidacy hasn’t intimidated anybody out of running. But another reason is that liberals don’t have the lucrative celebrity culture conservatives do. Running for president is a good career move on the Right, even if you don’t win. There’s a lecture circuit waiting for the Michele Bachmanns and Herman Cains. You can make a lot of money even if hardly anybody voted for you. Sarah Palin had such opportunities for wealth that remaining governor of Alaska just seemed stupid.

Once you get past the Clintons, though, it’s hard to find anybody making big money as a Democratic celebrity. The lecture circuit will probably open up for President Obama after he leaves office, if that’s what he wants to do. But it will continue to be a small circle. Dennis Kucinich’s 2004 campaign should have established his brand as an authentic liberal, but nobody bought his book and I haven’t been invited to hear him give a sponsored lecture anywhere. Elizabeth Warren got a decent book deal, but nothing on the Palin scale. Howard Dean shows up fairly often as a guest on MSNBC, but he didn’t get his own show like Mike Huckabee did on Fox.

In short, I can easily imagine a failed presidential campaign turning into a financial bonanza for Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina. Not so for Martin O’Malley or Jim Webb.


One of the more embarrassing campaign moments so far — at least it’s embarrassing to me as an American — came when Rick Santorum urged the Pope not to make an issue out of climate change.

The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science. We probably are better off leaving science to the scientists, and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.

It’s parody worthy of The Onion, but it’s what Santorum really said. I mean, who is ignoring the scientists here? It’s Santorum and his fellow climate-change deniers, not the Pope.


84% of Americans agree that money has too much influence in politics. Why doesn’t that lead to change? Because money has too much influence on politics.

This would be an interesting experiment: Redo that poll, but weight the responses according to the respondents’ net worth. The lower half of the country, i.e., households with net worth zero or negative, wouldn’t count at all. A billion-dollar household would count as much as a thousand million-dollar households, and so on.

That poll would be a more accurate reflection of the public as Congress sees it. And it might well turn out that a net-worth-weighted majority thinks money’s influence is perfectly fine. Sure people think that money has too much influence; but money probably thinks that people have too much influence.


College Humor presents: Diet Racism.


Gun Owners of America President Larry Pratt makes it clear why people like him shouldn’t be armed.

The Second Amendment was designed for people just like the president and his administration. … Yes, our guns are in our hands for people like those in our government right now that think they wanna go tyrannical on us. We’ve got something for ‘em. That’s what it’s all about.

Remember the Conservative-to-English Lexicon‘s definition of tyranny:

When a Marxist gets elected and then tries to carry out the platform the people voted for.

Marxist, in turn, is defined as “one who regrets the increasing concentration of wealth”.


538 does a good, even-handed discussion of the job market, the unemployment rate, and all those related statistics people often grind an ax about.

and let’s close with a duel

Chipotle’s “Scarecrow” video can be read as a full-force assault on the food industry.

But Funny or Die reads it as an attempt to subvert the revolution, and does an “honest version

.

So which is it: Are the capitalists selling us the rope to hang the capitalists? Or is seeing-through-the-illusion the new illusion?

What’s So Scary About Caitlyn Jenner?

Transsexualism is the latest example of a difficult truth: Everything you thought was a category is actually a continuum.


The interview. When I started watching Diane Sawyer’s interview with Bruce Jenner (as he was still calling himself in late April), I can’t say I was fully comfortable either with transsexualism in general or with the idea that the hero of the 1976 Olympics [see endnote 1] thought of himself as a woman.

I sort of understood transsexuals in the abstract, or at least I could repeat the right words: For some reason nobody can adequately explain, the gender that society assigns you (based on your genitalia) just feels wrong; you think of yourself as a woman with a penis or a man with breasts and a vagina. Jenner described the feeling in Christian terms: feeling like he had “the soul of a female”.

But as someone who has a hard time pointing to his own soul or tracing its outlines, I can’t really claim I know what that means. At times I have felt like a dissenter from various aspects of male culture — the violence, say, or the joy so many men take in humiliating others — but I have always experienced myself as reaching for a different kind of masculinity (just as so many women in my generation reached for a different kind of femininity) rather than rejecting the whole concept. I’m not sure what it would mean to not feel like a man “inside”. I’m like the fish who hears another fish say that swimming in water just feels wrong, that he was meant to fly through the air. And I respond, “Water? What is water?”

In my personal life, no one has forced me to come to terms with transsexualism. More than one of my casual friends has a child who has adopted a new name and a new pronoun. But learning that name has been about all the adjustment required of me. Occasionally I have found myself in a social setting with someone whose gender was ambiguous — combining breasts with a beard, say. And I have been uncomfortable, but what I mainly felt was fear of making a social error. My discomfort manifested as a desire to be somewhere else, not to harm that other person or make him/her be different.

So I was perhaps the perfect target audience for the Sawyer/Jenner interview. The distance — identifying through a screen with Sawyer sitting across from Jenner — was about right for me to put aside my discomfort and listen with empathy as he (at that time, Jenner was still using the masculine pronoun and talking about “her” as a person he had not yet revealed to the public) discussed his decision to create a new public identity as a woman.

First reactions. After watching that interview, a few things seemed obvious to me:

  • At 65, Jenner is old enough to know what s/he wants.
  • Jenner gave masculinity a fair shot. If it hasn’t worked, it hasn’t worked. In some ways, his external success — being an Olympic hero, trying marriage with three gorgeous women, fathering six and step-fathering four “wonderful, wonderful children” — makes the case clearer. A less successful person with Jenner’s inner life might have blamed himself and said: “Masculinity would be fulfilling if only I were better at it.”
  • Sixty-five is a do-or-die point for a lot of things in life. If there’s something you’re going to regret not trying, you better get on with it.
  • If Jenner’s kids and step-kids are OK with the transition [2], why should the rest of us object?

So this week, Jenner’s new female identity — Caitlyn — made her public debute with an Annie Leibovitz portrait on the cover of Vanity Fair. (Looking at that photo, I assume Kim Kardashian is happy with the way Caitlyn “rocks it”. [2])

Not pink and blue, red and blue. The public reaction has generally split on political lines. Liberals like me have mostly praised the courage it took to go public with something this controversial, while the conservative reaction has been described by the Washington Post as “apocalyptic“. The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer said on his radio show:

If you want one snapshot of just how corrupt, how morally corrupt, how morally bent, how morally twisted, how morally confused, how morally bankrupt we have become, all you’ve got to do is take a look at the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.

Matt Walsh wrote for The Blaze:

It’s all so evil and so bizarre and so unthinkably ridiculous that no dystopian sci-fi writer could have predicted that the collapse of western society would look like this.

President Obama has praised Jenner, while Republican candidates to replace him have either said nothing or lined up against her. (Lindsey Graham is the exception. And while the WaPo article lists Hillary Clinton as “generally supportive”, I can’t find a quote.) Mike Huckabee has been particularly interesting to watch, as he defended the Duggar family’s handling of their son’s abuse of his sisters (but then removed their endorsement from his web page), while trying to make a joke out of transsexualism.

The social-conservative base that the Republicans need to appeal to has been anything but silent. All you have to do is pick any of the links above and read the comments. They’re not just opposed, they’re actively hostile about it.

Why? Now, part of me (and probably part of you) is saying, “What else is new? Conservatives are rejecting somebody for being different from them, sometimes in very aggressive, insulting ways. Par for the course.” But it’s worth considering all the reasons that it didn’t have to be this way.

  • Jenner is one of their own. In the Sawyer interview, Jenner self-describes as a conservative Republican who “believes in the Constitution”. Jenner talks about God creating his male body and female soul, and thinks seriously about what mission God had in mind for that combination. And Jenner is not just a nominal Christian, but has a real relationship with a congregation. In the WaPo, a minister describes how the Jenner/Kardashian family was “an integral part of this nondenominational evangelical church” and put considerable effort into founding a new church in their neighborhood.
  • There’s really no scripture about this. You’ll search in vain for a verse that says, “A man shall not become a woman.” (If God foresees all, why wouldn’t He have included that verse in His scripture?) The Bible assigns different roles to men and women (not always consistently), and Deuteronomy 22:5 bans cross-dressing (though this rabbi interprets that ban in a limited way). But as for spelling out how you tell whether God meant for you to be male or female, the Bible is silent. Biblical verses supposedly condemning transsexualism all require a lot of interpretation. What motivates people to do the work necessary to arrive at that conclusion?
  • It’s not our business. We all have the option to say, “I wouldn’t do that, but I guess it takes all kinds.” In Thomas Jefferson’s words, Jenner is neither picking my pocket nor breaking my leg.
  • It’s a freedom thing. Who knows, maybe Caitlyn has made a mistake she will eventually regret. But she’s risking her own future life and happiness, not yours or mine. People following their own vision and risking it all for a goal that seems important — that’s something conservatives usually admire.
  • Jenner is a great family-values story. When unexpected challenges arise in the life of one of its members, does a family pull that person closer or push him or her away? The Sawyer interview shows Jenner embedded in a matrix of close family relationships, and the family supports Caitlyn. I’ve got to admire that, and you’d think people who define their politics around “family values” would too.

So there’s plenty of room for conservatives to support Jenner, or just to shrug and move on. But clearly they don’t want to do that. Why not?

What I think is going on. When I look at my own initial discomfort, I think it traces back to a source so basic that it’s pre-verbal. Before I can talk about it, I need to tease it out. So bear with me while I seem to go off on a tangent.

The human mind is kind of a kludge. It has to be. After all, how is a three-pound piece of meat supposed to make sense of such a vast and complicated universe? One of the kludgy short-cuts our minds take is to break the world into categories, i.e., to clump different things together and treat them the same. Many of those categories are binary: male/female, child/adult, right/wrong, friend/enemy, and so on. Others have more options. (In grade school I was taught that there are three races of humans: caucasian, negroid, and mongoloid.) Some of the categories seem in-born, while others are taught to us so early they might as well be. For example, a certain amount of species recognition is practically hard-wired. Kids at an early age will tell you that two dogs are similar while a dog and a cat are different.

We really, really want to believe that the categories in our heads are objective descriptions of the world out there, but science keeps telling us that they aren’t. For example, there are no races, but rather a continuum of genetic difference. If you pluck two people from distant parts of the continuum, they may look like members of distinct races, but in the world as a whole, you won’t be able to trace any boundary line between those races.

Similarly, species are not platonic ideals, but clusters in the genetic continuum. So (contrary to Plato) there is no ideal horse or dog, just lots of individual horses and dogs, any two of whom resemble each other. There are no gay people and straight people, but rather a continuum of bisexuality. There are no nationalities — a point made very strikingly in a fascinating book called The Discovery of France. And like nationalities, modern languages are largely political constructions. In medieval Europe, for example, each village would have a dialect slightly different from the next. If you plucked people out of distant places on that continuum — say one from Paris, another from Madrid, and a third from Lisbon — they would sound like they were speaking different languages you could call French, Spanish, and Portuguese. But, like races, there were no boundaries where one butted up against the other — until politics created those boundaries and imposed them.

And now we are discovering that gender is a binary categorization imposed on an underlying continuum with multiple dimensions. It’s more complicated than just John Waynes with penises and Marilyn Monroes with vaginas.

If you think seriously about how flawed the fundamental building blocks of our thinking are, it’s scary. At any moment, some part of the Universe you’ve been assuming away could come back to bite you. That’s the human condition.

That’s why we get such an oogy feeling whenever we see an example of something we were raised to think didn’t exist: an effeminate man, two women kissing, a child with dark brown skin and frizzy red hair. It’s a reminder that we don’t really grasp the Universe; we just apply kludgy notions that more-or-less work most of the time.

What social conservatism is. At its root, social conservatism is a way to deny that fear and transmute it into anger. Conservatism reassures us that the categories in our heads are real. We didn’t make them up; God created them. They’re natural.

You can see that principle operating across the board. For example, that’s why social conservatives have such a hard time accepting evolution: If species are real things and if humans evolved from some other kind of primate, then each being in that mother-to-child chain belonged to a species. Somewhere along that line, the impermeable boundary between species had to be crossed: an ape mother gave birth to the first human child. Impossible!

Likewise abortion. The moral worth of a member of the human species is a unitary thing. It can’t develop gradually along a continuum, but has to exist either in its entirety or not at all. And a fetus is either a member of the human species or not. We aren’t allowed to recognize that in its early stages, a human fetus is virtually indistinguishable from the fetus of a pig or cow, or that it begins to differentiate from a chimp fetus even later.

This reification of the categories is why conservative rhetoric is obsessed with the word real: real men, real Americans, real conservatives. Liberals are more likely to describe themselves as authentic. Authentic is a relative word; it points to a harmony between what I am and the image I project. Real is absolute; I am a real X because I match an ideal definition of X that exists eternally in the mind of God.

Now, not even social conservatism can deny the existence of things that don’t fit neatly into the proper categories. But it can reject them as abominations. The list of abominations depends on the categories you were raised with: Men attracted to other men are abominations. Women who operate heavy machinery are abominations. Families who cross from black to white are abominations. Americans who can’t speak English are abominations. Mixed-race people are abominations. Genetic engineering produces abominations.

Functionally, an abomination is anything that causes confusion by making us doubt our categories. And by labeling it as an abomination, we transform our doubt and confusion into anger at whatever confused us.

So: Caitlyn Jenner is an abomination. Just by existing, she creates confusion about the kludgy notion of binary gender. She points out that there is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamed of in our philosophies … or our religions. That’s a scary idea, and by raising it, she becomes an object of anger.


[1] I remember eating Wheaties out of a box with Bruce Jenner’s picture on it. In the 1970s, (moreso than today, for some reason) the Decathlon was a legend-making Olympic event. Americans who won it — Jim Thorpe and Bob Mathias, for example — were famous for more than just a four-year cycle. They became the defining image of the perfect all-around athlete. Physically, they were what every American boy was supposed to want to become.

Bruce Jenner was a record-setting Olympic Decathlon champion, and he arrived at a moment in history when white males were starting to feel insecure about their athleticism. Black sports heroes (Jesse Ownes, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson) had once been tokens, freakish exceptions who were “credits to their race”. The next generation of black athletes (Wilt Chamberlain, Jim Brown, Willie Mays) claimed their place in the mainstream. But by the mid-70s, it was white players (Rick Barry, Dave Cowens) who looked like tokens in the NBA, and the NFL and MLB seemed headed in the same direction. Blacks would never be great quarterbacks, we told each other. But secretly we wondered if there would ever be a white running back on the level of O. J. Simpson, Tony Dorsett, or Walter Payton. (According to this CheatSheet.com top-ten list, the answer was no.) Even the last American Decathlon champion (Rafer Johnson) had been black.

And then came Bruce Jenner, the hero we needed at the time we needed him. A white man’s white man. Or so we thought.

[2] The most amusing reaction Jenner reports came from step-daughter Kim Kardashian. Following a “breakthrough” conversation with Kanye West (of all people), Kim became “by far, the most accepting” of the children. Jenner quotes her volunteering to help shape Caitlyn’s style:

Girl, you gotta rock it, baby. You gotta look good. If you’re doing this thing, I’m helping you. You’re representing the family. You gotta look really good.

The Monday Morning Teaser

I ignored the buzz surrounding Diane Sawyer’s interview with Bruce Jenner back in April. It wasn’t a well-thought-out decision, I just didn’t have much I wanted to say.

Then this week, when social media was dominated by Jenner’s re-emergence as Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair, I realized the reaction against Jenner gave me a news hook on which to hang some thoughts I’ve been mulling about the mindset of social conservatism. That turned into “What’s So Scary About Caitlyn Jenner?”, which still needs a lot of polishing, but will be out sometime this morning.

The weekly summary will discuss the changes in the Patriot Act, more on the Duggars, the bizarre turn in the Christian persecution complex as the Supremes get ready to rule on marriage equality, why a hopeless presidential campaign can be a good career move (if you’re a Republican), and two dueling videos about the food industry. That post also still needs a lot of work, so I’m not predicting when it will appear.

Homage to Virtue

Maxim 218: Hypocrisy is an homage that vice pays to virtue.

François de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)

This week’s featured post is “Rich Lowry’s False Choice“.

This week everybody was talking about Denny Hastert

I’ll let Orin Kerr summarize:

If I understand the history correctly, in the late 1990s, the President was impeached for lying about a sexual affair by a House of Representatives led by a man who was also then hiding a sexual affair, who was supposed to be replaced by another Congressman who stepped down when forced to reveal that he too was having a sexual affair, which led to the election of a new Speaker of the House who now has been indicted for lying about payments covering up his sexual contact with a boy.

That last guy is Dennis Hastert. The only reason he became Speaker to begin with was that he had the squeaky-clean image the GOP needed to continue its witch-hunt against Bill Clinton.

and the Houston floods

Texans have decided to delay seceding from the Union until their federal disaster-relief checks clear. Two years ago, when Congress was voting on disaster relief in the Northeast after Hurricane Sandy, Ted Cruz said:

This bill is symptomatic of a larger problem in Washington—an addiction to spending money we do not have. The United States Senate should not be in the business of exploiting victims of natural disasters to fund pork projects that further expand our debt.

The Sandy funding bill wasn’t passed until a full three months after the storm. When disaster strikes Texas, though, Cruz stands strong

in support of the federal government fulfilling its statutory obligations and stepping in to respond to this natural disaster.

No concern about whether this might be “money we do not have”. You also gotta love Cruz’ reaction to the question of whether climate change had something to do with this:

At a time of tragedy, I think it’s wrong to try to politicize a natural disaster.

Pointing to causes and seeking solutions is “politicizing”. Of course, folks on the Right are fine with pointing to a cause like, say, God’s judgment against witchcraft and sodomy.

In addition to climate change, another real factor in the flooding is Houston’s lack of zoning and uncontrolled sprawl, i.e., the “Texas tradition of strong personal property and land use rights that mean fewer regulations.” A Texas A&M professor of urban planning says:

Think about every time you put in a road, a mall and you add concrete, you’ve lost the ability of rain to get into the soil and you’ve lost that permeability. It’s now impermeable. And therefore you get more runoff.

Anyway, I hope the congressional delegations of New York and New Jersey make merciless fun of Cruz … and then vote promptly for the disaster relief. Americans taking care of each other in hard times is part of our long socialist tradition.


but I was listening to talks

Bernie

A full room makes a happy candidate.

Wednesday evening I saw Bernie Sanders in Portsmouth, NH. (I shot both pictures in this segment.) The crowd — maybe 700 by my back-of-the-envelope estimate — packed South Church, and people were standing in the back. It was an enthusiastic, jump-up-and-cheer group. And Sanders did not tiptoe around at all, using the taboo word oligarchy and making frequent references to “the billionaire class” that is buying our government and organizing the economy to suit itself.

This was a day after his 5000-person rally in his home city of Burlington, Vermont, which I suspect is the largest rally by any 2016 candidate so far. And this weekend, a crowd of more than a thousand greeted him in Iowa City.

Sanders is absolutely going to get outspent by the Clinton campaign, but in a small state like New Hampshire that might not matter. Enthusiasm means a lot in a primary, and Bernie has it working for him. I predict that Hillary isn’t going to be able to coast on her name recognition and money. And going negative — the chief thing money is good for — isn’t an attractive option, because she’ll want Sanders’ supporters to join her for the general election. If Clinton is going to win here, she’s going to have to raise enthusiasm of her own.

Maybe she will. I’m currently in the middle of a Hillary Reading Project, which you’ll hear about eventually. I’m reading her books in order, from It Takes a Village to Living History (which I’m reading now) to Hard Choices. Like a lot of writers, I read a lot into an author’s voice, and I’m finding Hillary surprisingly personable and likeable. The question I’m trying to answer is whether she has a set of core values we can count on, or if the Clintons only stand for political expediency. Conclusions are still pending.


The bizarre way the Sanders campaign is being covered is starting to draw attention. Jon Stewart ran a series of clips of pundits referring to Sanders as a “long shot” and a “loon” and then said: “Give me a taste of this crazy whacko cuckoo bird”, followed by clips of Sanders denouncing too-big-to-fail banks, calling for pay equity for women, endorsing campaign finance reform, and proposing that Social Security be expanded rather than cut. He comments:

What a rational, slightly left-of-center, mainstream politician.

And WaPo’s “The Fix” points out that Sanders has more supporters than many Republican candidates who are not instantly dismissed as long shots.

What’s going on here? It’s another example of the model I discussed in 2011 in “Liberal Media, Conservative Manipulation“. Journalists are relegating Sanders’ candidacy to the “Sphere of Deviance”, where it can be dismissed without considering any of the points it raises.


McKibben

Under the banner of the Earth.

Sunday, my church (First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts) took advantage of Bill McKibben being in town for his mother’s 85th birthday, and invited him in to speak. He gave a more-or-less sermon-length talk during the regular worship service, and then stuck around to answer questions a bit later. (The picture is from the Q&A session.)

I’ll probably discuss his argument more in a future week, but here’s the gist of it: He focused on the importance of time. The shift away from fossil fuels and towards sustainable energy is happening, but the question is whether it will happen fast enough to avoid climate cataclysm. “If we had 30 years,” he said, “I’d be sanguine.”

The point of activism like protesting the Keystone Pipeline and pushing public institutions to divest from fossil fuel stocks is to accelerate the shift. He sees this era as the last gasp of large-scale fossil-fuel-industry projects like the pipeline. If we can delay them long enough, they will die and no one will revive them.

and I finally had to think about the Duggars

I avoided the topic all last week, because the Josh-molesting-his-younger-sisters story followed the usual energy-wasting pattern:

  • Liberals get their buttons pushed by sanctimonious religious hypocrisy.
  • They react with outrage.
  • That outrage makes religious conservatives circle their wagons around the offender.
  • The conservative defenses are, to put it mildly, ridiculous, which sets off more liberal outrage.
  • Eventually it all burns itself out and nobody on either side is better for it.

This week, the flood of links on my Facebook news feed continued, and I finally gave in. I will now try my best to pull something edifying out of the cesspool.

First is just the depth of that cesspool. The Duggars are part of the Quiverfull movement, which shows how far wrong fundamentalist Christianity can go. (You think you know, but you probably don’t. I didn’t.) Before marriage, a woman’s purpose in life is to serve her parents; after, it’s to give her husband as many children as possible. Sex within marriage is a duty, and if a wife isn’t in the mood after spending her day being pawed at by the dozen kids she’s already had, that reluctance is a manifestation of her sinful nature. If she gives in to that sinful nature and refuses sex, she needs to be disciplined. (The next time someone says they support “Biblical marriage“, ask them if this is what they mean. The Quiverfull people can chapter-and-verse you if it’s not.)

The deeper thing I noticed from reading the back-and-forth about the Duggar molestations is that two very different frames for morality are being applied. In one, morality is all about how humans relate to each other, and the reason certain actions are bad is that they damage people. In the other, morality revolves around an individual’s relationship to authority, and actions are bad because they break the rules that someone in authority — God, a religious leader, a parent — has laid down.

For very young children, you often have to rely on the second framing, because the cause-and-effect chain that connects their actions to someone else’s distress is too long and tenuous for them to grasp. The desire to pick the pretty flower fills the child’s whole mind, and the thought that some stranger planted it, cares for it, and will be sad to see it gone is too abstract. So parents substitute their own relationship with the child for the relationship-with-the-world that the child is not able to grasp yet: Not picking other people’s flowers is just a rule, and Mommy and Daddy will be disappointed in you if you break it.

That’s fine as far as it goes. But I believe that if you make it to adulthood and that’s still your frame for morality, with God taking the place of Mommy and Daddy, something has gone seriously wrong. That’s just not a mature basis for living a moral life.

And that’s what I see in the defenses of Josh Duggar. (I’m not alone. Even an orthodox Christian blogger like Joel Miller seems to be pointing to the same thing.) Duggar’s public statement (which Miller finds “galling”) contains one quick reference to hurting others, but otherwise it’s all about himself and authority figures. “I understood that if I continued down this wrong road that I would end up ruining my life.” And the ultimate authority — Christ — has forgiven him, so that’s that and we should all just move on.

I found it enlightening to look at a case study from the Advanced Training Institute, whose fundamentalist family-training system the Duggars followed. The case the lesson discusses is earlier than Josh, but remarkably similar. The problem is framed as a conflict between the teen-age boy’s impure desires (to molest younger siblings) and God’s rules. Compassion for the siblings and appreciation of the long-term psychological damage they might suffer just doesn’t figure. So instead of focusing on causes (a lack of empathy and compassion), the case study focuses on triggers (the events that evoke the desires). For me, the lesson turns out to be a case study on how you end up blaming the victims and changing their behavior instead of the perpetrator’s. Because while a victim’s behavior may be blameless (i.e., young children running around naked after a shower), it does indeed trigger the forbidden desires.

Morality, as I conceive it, is about how we’re all going to live together on the Earth without making each other miserable. If you picture it instead as a private interaction between yourself and the Divine Lawmaker, I think you’ve still got some growing up to do.

and the Fox Effect hits close to home

I live in New Hampshire, but my church is across the border in Bedford, Massachusetts. This week Fox Boston decided to create a reverse-racism controversy at Bedford High, where I know several students, a bunch of parents, and some faculty.

Background: There’s a meme of “Shit White People Say”. Put that phrase into YouTube and you’ll get a bunch of hits. It’s about the clueless things whites say to non-whites, not out of any conscious hate or hostility, but just because the majority race doesn’t have to think too hard about minority life and so makes stereotypic assumptions. (I’ve done stuff that could show up in such a video. One morning at a hotel in D.C., I saw a well-dressed black man standing by the door and asked him about taxis, thinking he must be a hotel employee. He was an African diplomat.)

The most popular one is probably “Shit White Girls Say … to Black Girls“, in which a black woman in a blond wig says a lot of clueless white-girl things. It has gotten over 11 million hits on YouTube, so I suspect a lot of Bedford High students have seen it.

Some BHS students made a video “Sh*t White People Say: BHS Edition“. In it, a black student in a blond wig goes up to other blacks and says the kinds of clueless things that I suspect the makers of the video have heard themselves. Like asking a black teacher if he’s a janitor, or assuming that a black student must be from the METCO program that brings students in from inner-city Boston, or that a METCO student must want to talk about whatever grisly inner-city crime was on the news. I thought it was a pretty good piece of work.

It got shown on the student-run closed-circuit TV show BHS Live, apparently without needing the approval of anybody in the administration. As a high-school-newspaper editor from the 1970s, my first thought was: “Cool. Students talking directly to other students.” (My faculty adviser occasionally saved me from doing something stupid, but also kept me from covering the school the way it actually was, rather than the way the administration wanted the community to see it. High-school papers in the 70s were all basically Pravda.)

But Fox Boston (Channel 25) heard about the video and reacted differently. They found one offended white parent to interview. The concerns that caused the students to make the video aren’t discussed, because the only kind of racism Fox can see is reverse-racism that offends whites. The interviewed parent thinks “somebody needs to lose their job” over the video.

The BHS administration is actually handling this reasonably well, all things considered. A letter to parents from the Superintendent says:

We believe that there is an important difference between hate speech or the accumulated racial slights that many of our students of color have unfortunately experienced on the one hand, and an attempt to educate others about racism that used stereotypes to make its point on the other.

In other words, they’re rejecting the whole reverse-racism frame, even as they try to placate the handful of whites who took offense.

But, predictably, it sounds like BHS Live is going to get more faculty oversight. I mean, we can’t have student journalists out there rocking the boat. They might turn into adult journalists who rock the boat.

and you also might be interested in …

So let’s trace the trajectory of events: A Muhammad cartoon contest was held in Texas specifically to enrage American Muslims. Two particularly unhinged young men went there with guns and got themselves killed, wounding a security guard but harming none of provocateurs. In response to that attempted attack — which had no apparent connection to Phoenix250 protesters, some armed, showed up outside a Muslim community center in Phoenix during Friday prayers, carrying signs like “FUCK ISLAM”. [Correction: The Texas attackers reportedly had attended the Phoenix mosque.]

Imagine if large numbers of armed Muslims showed up outside a Christian church with offensive signs, because some Christian attacked some event in another state specifically designed to incite Christian violence. Where’s this kind of provocation heading?


The week’s most surprising political news was that Nebraska eliminated capital punishment, with its Republican legislature overriding the veto of its Republican governor. What’s interesting is that there is now a conservative case against capital punishment: It leads to a long appeals process that ends up costing the state more than life in prison; a true small-government conservative shouldn’t want the government to have the power to kill people; and a right-to-life view is more consistent without the death penalty.

This raises the question of whether there are other issues where liberals and conservatives can unite on a result, even if they justify it differently. Lawrence Lessig has proposed campaign finance reform as such an issue. And when I asked Bill McKibben about such overlaps (see above) he pointed out that building the Keystone Pipeline involves letting a foreign company (TransCanada) use the eminent domain process to seize land from American owners. When you put it that way, conservatives don’t like it.


The biggest hobgoblin raised against same-sex marriage is the idea that conservative Christian ministers will be forced to perform them or arrested for speaking out against them. Well, the issue is leading to ministers being arrested, but not the ones you think.


Yesterday’s NYT discusses Hillary Clinton’s efforts to find the kind of big-money donors Republican candidates have. If I were her, I’d be trying to do the same thing, but at the same time it’s sad. In an era when “money is speech”, one $20 million donor speaks as loud as a million $20 donors. And if you’re just one $20 donor — and you’re not sure another 999,999 are going to back you up — maybe you start thinking you should leave politics to the oligarchs.


The next time some young woman tells you she’s not a feminist, send her this Katy Goodman song:


This comic from New Zealand is a good illustration of how privilege works little-by-little over an entire lifetime.

and let’s close with a look behind the scenes

You thought puppies just did all that stuff by instinct, didn’t you? Actually their moms teach them. Here a hidden camera captures the how-to-be-a-puppy-lessons a Siberian husky teaches her seven offspring.

Rich Lowry’s False Choice

If you don’t like racist police, you must want no police at all.


There’s a rhetorical trick that everybody needs to learn to spot, because it’s widely used and very convincing if you not on guard: the false dilemma. In the false dilemma, an author or speaker cuts an entire universe of possibilities down to two: the one he likes and an alternative that is obviously horrible.

A particularly nasty false dilemma is the heart of Rich Lowry’s “#SomeBlackLivesDontMatter“, which appeared on the Politico website Wednesday. (Lowry is a longtime editor at National Review. Why Politico publishes his work is something of a mystery.)

Lowry starts with the familiar conservative trope that black activists don’t care about black-on-black crime.

Let’s be honest: Some black lives really don’t matter. If you are a young black man shot in the head by another young black man, almost certainly no one will know your name. Al Sharpton won’t come rushing to your family’s side with cameras in tow. MSNBC won’t discuss the significance of your death. No one will protest, or even riot, for you.

Of course, no one should protest for you, because protest is a tool for addressing the government, not criminals. So protesting against some random street criminal who shot some innocent civilian would make no sense. (This is frequently missed point on the Right. For example, the protests after Trayvon Martin’s death weren’t directed at George Zimmerman, but at the local legal system that wasn’t taking Martin’s death seriously.) But keep going, Rich.

The Baltimore Sun ran a headline (since changed) that had the air of a conundrum, although it isn’t very puzzling, “With arrests down in Baltimore, mayor ‘examining’ increase in killings.” According to the paper, arrests have dropped by about half in May. The predictable result is that violent crime is spiking.

The implication is clear: More people need to be arrested in Baltimore, not fewer. And more need to be jailed. If black lives truly matter, Baltimore needs more and better policing and incarceration to impose order on communities where a lawless few spread mayhem and death.

The reason Baltimore can’t get this “better policing” — somehow synonymous with “incarceration” — is because the black community doesn’t like the bad policing it’s been getting.

If the message is supposed to be that they don’t want the police there, it has been received.

Of course, literally no one is saying that the black neighborhoods of Baltimore shouldn’t be policed. (That’s why Lowry needs the if. If he could quote some black or liberal leader calling for no policing, he’d really have a point against them. But since none is, he needs a hypothetical.) And now that Lowry has cut the alternatives down to (1) continued racist policing and (2) no law enforcement at all, it’s clear that the people protesting against racist policing should just shut up.

It is wrong for the police to shrink from doing their job, but the last month in Baltimore shows how important that job is. This is especially true in dangerous, overwhelmingly black neighborhoods. They need disproportionate police attention, even if that attention is easily mischaracterized as racism. The alternative is a deadly chaos that destroys and blights the lives of poor blacks.

Again, he quotes no one saying that police don’t have an important job, and he offers no evidence at all that policing in Baltimore has been mischaracterized as racism. That’s just what Lowry wants to believe and wants you to believe. (If someday we reach a point where all the apparently racist actions of police have been “mischaracterized”, the #BlackLivesMatter movement will have succeeded.)

So that’s your choice, black America: Live in completely lawless communities, or STFU whenever police kill young blacks they already have subdued, or shoot down young blacks who are doing nothing wrong. You can have police who continue misbehaving the way they have been, or no police at all. There is no third alternative.

The Monday Morning Teaser

In addition to teaching the Constitution and the structure of our government, Civics classes ought to teach everybody the basic logical fallacies: ad hominem, straw man, slippery slope, and so on. Because if there’s one thing all citizens ought to know, it’s how to recognize the ways in which hucksters will try to sway their decisions.

This week’s featured post is such a lesson: “Rich Lowry’s False Choice”. Wednesday, Politico had the poor judgment to publish Lowry’s column “#SomeBlackLivesDontMatter“. The black lives that supposedly don’t matter (to the people carrying the “Black Lives Matter” signs) are the victims of black-on-black crime. Because the more police are limited, the more black-on-black victims there will be.

The fallacy — which Lowry presents very artfully, I have to admit — is called “false dilemma“. The choice Lowry offers black communities in places like Baltimore and Ferguson is: continued racist policing or no policing at all. The option of police who enforce the law fairly and don’t abuse their authority has somehow vanished.

The weekly summary will discuss the shot-out-of-the-blue Dennis Hastert scandal, which finally completes the story of Bill Clinton’s impeachment: Literally everybody who went after Clinton was doing the same or worse. Also, Texans are suddenly OK with big government, at least until their disaster-relief checks clear. After intentionally ignoring the Josh Duggar story last week, the steady barrage of links on my Facebook news feed finally wore me down; I’ll pass on what I learned after I filtered the vitriol out of the discussion. And I got to watch the local Fox station make mischief in my back yard, creating a “reverse racism” scandal out of a pretty good piece of student video.

But far and away the most fun thing I got to do this week was go to two talks: I saw Bernie Sanders in Portsmouth Wednesday and Bill McKibben at my church on Sunday. Since I just covered Sanders last week, I won’t go into detail about his message; I’ll focus instead on the crowd enthusiasm and what I think it means. McKibben’s talk might deserve a more detailed discussion in a future week, but today I’ll pass on the gist.

Oh, and there’s a closing: I bet you never wondered who teaches puppies how to act like puppies. New video reveals the answer.

The Lowry article should go up shortly. The weekly summary will take a bit longer.

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.

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