The Monday Morning Teaser

This week I couldn’t stay away from Ken Langone’s ridiculous comparison between liberal rhetoric about the 1% and “what Hitler was saying” in 1933, though “with different words”. I mean, he’s right: If you change all the words, the two are exactly the same. How can you argue with something like that?

Since that part is logically unassailable, I decided to focus on the part of Langone’s statement that has content: “You don’t survive as a society if you encourage or thrive on envy or jealousy.” I figure that’s the venom that supposed to stay in the public’s system after the Hitler-barb gets pulled out: the Left’s message is all about envy and resentment. (It’s as if he said your moustache resembles Hitler’s, and then you denied it, but forgot to mention that you don’t have a moustache. The public is likely to come out thinking that your moustache is probably more like Stalin’s, or maybe Ming the Merciless.)

So “The Real Politics of Envy” pays attention to whose message is actually raising and capitalizing on resentment: the Right’s. That’s a constant background refrain whenever they campaign against unionized workers, or sexually active young people, or the poor: Somebody’s getting away with something you wish you could have gotten away with, so don’t you want to see them punished? Nothing the Left says about the rich is remotely comparable.

That should be out in about an hour and a half. Later this morning, the weekly summary will snark about the news networks’ 24/7 coverage of the missing airliner, which has exemplified just about everything that’s wrong with contemporary journalism. I’ll also link you to stuff written by people who understand Crimea, Russia, and Ukraine better than I do; point out some of the classy ways people reacted to the death of Fred God-Hates-Fags Phelps; mark ObamaCare’s fourth anniversary; and call your attention to some hilarious examples of the new Internet art form “McConnelling”.

False Choices

The Left is making a big mistake here. What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul.

– Paul Ryan at CPAC, 3-6-2014

No Sift March 17

I’ll be spending the week working on the talk “Recovery From Privilege” that I’m giving Sunday at First Parish Church in Billerica, MA, and preparing to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary on Tuesday.

In other Sift news, “What Should Racism Mean?” became the third Weekly Sift post to get more than 25,000 page views. (And started another run yesterday. My thanks to the unknown Facebook bellwether who got it started.) Largely because of the new readers that post attracted, the number of people who subscribe to the Sift via WordPress went over 1,000 for the first time.

The next set of articles will appear March 24.

This week everybody was talking about Ukraine

Russia appears set to annex Crimea, and may get away with it. On Sunday, Crimeans will vote on a referendum to join Russia. Crimea has an ethnic-Russian majority and was part of Russia until 1954. Russian and/or pro-Russian troops currently control the country, including Crimean television stations, and access to Ukrainian TV has been blocked. So the join-Russia side has a distinct advantage.

Ukraine says the referendum is illegal. Russia counters that the ouster of Ukrainian President Yanukovych (currently in Russia) and the election to replace him on May 25 are also illegal, so claims based on the Ukrainian Constitution are specious.

Some political observers are portraying this as some kind of masterstroke for Russian President Putin, but those who take a more economic view are skeptical: The Russian stock market has plunged, the ruble is down 10%, and the Russian central bank has had to raise interest rates to 7% (from and already-high 5.5%) to keep Russian currency from devaluing further. The Russian economy was not in great shape to begin with, so an interest-rate spike is likely to cause a serious recession. All that is prior to any economic sanctions that might come from the EU or the United States.

So one of the things being tested here is how much economic pain Putin is willing and able to impose on the Russian people. Maybe the surge of nationalistic pride in regaining Crimea balances that, or maybe it doesn’t.

Another consequence of Crimea leaving Ukraine would be to take a bunch of pro-Russian voters out of the Ukrainian political system, thereby guaranteeing that the remainder of Ukraine will shift towards the European Union.


I’ve occasionally channel-scanned through the RT (Russia Today) network, and I think I’ve probably even linked to it sometime or other. Most days, it looks like just any other cable news network, and not the government-funded vehicle it is. But apparently RT has been laying it on a bit thick as the Ukrainian crisis developed, leading this American reporter to resign on the air.

You’ve got to think somebody in the production booth could have pulled the plug and didn’t. I wonder how his or her career is going.


With the propaganda flying as thick as it is, everyone is looking for their own authentic sources on the ground. I got a comment last week from Fedor Manin, author of the Fourteen Flowers and a Manatee blog. He has translated a post “On the Brink of War” from the blog of a Russian-speaking Crimean woman, Svetlana Panina.

Please, everyone who loves Crimea, everyone who loves Russians in Crimea. Help me carry this thought through to every heart. The Russians in Crimea didn’t ask Russian soldiers to come to our homes! No one attacked us! We were living quietly and well! We were waiting for our summer guests from Russia and Ukraine, and from other countries all over the world, after all, Crimea is a gem that belongs to the whole planet.

She takes a train (with what appear to be a bunch of Ukrainian women and children escaping Crimea) from Crimea to Kiev, and reports the wild rumors flying around each place about what is happening (or about to happen) in the other.

Someone from my church has a friend in Yalta, and forwarded an email he had gotten from her. She reports that Crimean Russians, especially the older generation, are eager to join Russia and believe that the new Ukrainian government contains a neo-Nazi element that wants “to exterminate all Russians living in Ukraine”. If I believed extermination was a possibility, I’d see Putin as the Russians’ protector and support the referendum too.

All this makes me wonder about the timing of the Crimean referendum: Maybe Putin needs it to happen before the panic has a chance to settle down.

and CPAC

One media mystery is why the annual Conservative Political Action Conference gets so much national coverage, while gatherings of liberal activists (like, say, Netroots Nation) don’t. I suspect it’s that far-right activists have much more influence in the Republican Party than far-left activists have among the Democrats, but Josh Marshall offers another reason:

In recent years, especially since Obama became President, CPAC’s wild press popularity and attention has been driven by what we might call a tacit conspiracy of derp between the event organizers and the people who cover it. You be outrageous; we’ll be outraged. And everyone will be happy. (After all, crap like this doesn’t happen by accident.) This has become even more the case as the contemporary Conservative Movement has become less a matter of ideology than a sort of performance art.


Rand Paul won the CPAC presidential straw poll, getting 31% to Ted Cruz’ 11%. Paul’s vote was up from the 25% he got last year. Marco Rubio’s support collapsed from 23% last year to 6%. (Rubio made the mistake of trying to pass a law rather than just posture about ideology. His subsequent decision to oppose his own immigration bill didn’t win back his CPAC fans.) Chris Christie’s support was up to 8% (from 7% in 2013) because he’s having such a good year.

To understand the significance of Paul’s victory, I looked up the 2010 CPAC straw poll: Rand’s Dad Ron Paul also got 31% (to Mitt Romney’s 22%), and as we all know, went on to win the 2012 Republican nomination and become president.

I’m trying not to obsess about 2016 already, but I will say this: Rand Paul is not a threat. Put him on a debate stage and Ted Cruz will eat his lunch. Rand just isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, or as his Dad was. He hasn’t really thought through the implications of his libertarian beliefs. And that gets him sidetracked into arguments he can’t win, like defending a restauranteur’s right to run a segregated lunch counter.


Paul Ryan only managed 3% in the straw poll, but he was responsible for the video clip liberals most love to hate, which has got to count for something.

What [the Left is] offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul. … This reminds me of a story I heard from Eloise Anderson. … She once met a young boy from a very poor family. And every day at school, he would get a free lunch from a government program. He told Eloise he didn’t want a free lunch. He wanted his own lunch, one in a brown paper bag, just like the other kids. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown paper bag had someone who cared for him. This is what the Left doesn’t understand. … People don’t just want a life of comfort, they want a life of dignity.

Never mind that the story is mis-attributed. (Chris Hayes interviews the woman who really played the Eloise role.) Or that key elements have been fudged. (The government wasn’t involved.) That’s in the fine tradition of Ronald Reagan and John McCain. Expecting politicians to check their touching anecdotes is like expecting Bostonians to stop at red lights when there’s no traffic.

Liberals around the country objected to an implication that may or may not have been there: that poor kids don’t have parents who care about them.

A better objection is that this is the usual conservative sleight-of-hand: It makes the Best the enemy of the Good, as if the Best will appear by magic as soon as the Good is eliminated. Specifically, how is emptying stomachs going to fill souls?

If that imagined child doesn’t already have a caring parent, how is taking away his lunch going to give him one? It’s like when  Newt Gingrich said “the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” Taking away someone’s food stamps isn’t going to get her a job. So yes, people want lives of dignity — liberals understand that quite well. But we also understand that inflicting discomfort on them is not going to help them get it.

Ryan is also performing a second standard conservative sleight-of-hand: severing the moral connection between the people who pay taxes and the people who receive benefits. Free school lunches exist because Americans do care about poor kids. The government isn’t some soulless black hole that sucks up taxes in one universe and regurgitates benefits in another. The government is a structure through which We the People manifest our desire to help each other.

So if Eloise actually had met such a boy, here’s what she should have said: “You have this lunch because people do care about you. All over the country, people have pictured kids like you going without a lunch and decided they want to pay taxes so that you won’t have to be hungry. I pay taxes, and let me tell you, this is exactly what I had in mind.”

and you also might be interested in …

Edwin Lyngar posted a touching article “I Lost My Dad to Fox News” on Salon.

My father sincerely believes that science is a political plot, Christians are America’s most persecuted minority and Barack Obama is a full-blown communist. He supports the use of force without question, as long as it’s aimed at foreigners. He thinks liberals are all stupid, ignorant fucks who hate America.

I don’t recall my father being so hostile when I was growing up. He was conservative, to be sure, but conventionally and thoughtfully so. He is a kind and generous man and a good father, but over the past five or 10 years, he’s become so conservative that I can’t even find a label for it.

What has changed? He consumes a daily diet of nothing except Fox News. … I do not blame or condemn my father for his opinions. If you consumed a daily diet of right-wing fury, erroneously labeled “news,” you could very likely end up in the same place. … To some people the idea of retirees yelling at the television all day may seem funny, but this isn’t a joke. We’re losing the nation’s grandparents, and it’s an American tragedy.

A less extreme version of the same thing happened to my parents in their 80s. They continued to identify as New Deal Democrats and knew Fox was slanted, but for some reason they watched anyway. CNN bored them, MSNBC wasn’t part of basic cable, and they found hosts like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity reassuring and comfortable. I think even if MSNBC had been an option, Chris Hayes and Steve Kornacki would have seemed like smart-alec kids to them, and I doubt they’d have gotten past their surface impressions of an intense black woman like Melissa Harris-Perry or an unrepentant lesbian like Rachel Maddow.

If you are old and white, Fox News may produce long-term anxiety, but it sneaks up on you. The immediate optics of MSNBC are far more challenging, and my parents watched cable news for companionship, not challenge.

Fox never changed my parents’ philosophy, but little-by-little it shaped their perceptions. They wondered why the Democrats couldn’t find any good leaders — not realizing that everything they saw about Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid or Joe Biden was selected and edited to make them look silly and unappealing. They wondered why President Obama always emphasized the wrong issues and couldn’t come up with any persuasive messages — never able to compensate for the fact that they only saw Obama through the eyes of his enemies. The important issues — the ACORN videos, the Tea Party protests, ObamaCare’s death panels — left Democrats with nothing much to say. And what made today’s liberals so hostile to Christianity?


The New Hampshire’s Republican-majority Senate finally accepted a plan to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. According to The Concord Monitor:

The bill goes next to the House Finance Committee on Monday. The Democratic majority there is supportive of the bill, as is Gov. Maggie Hassan

I’m sure our minimum-wage workers and our hospital administrators are breathing easier. If we get this done, and if the plan of Pennsylvania’s Republican Gov. Tom Corbett passes, then Maine will be the only holdout in the Northeast. Campaign on that, Gov. LePage.


It will soon no longer be a felony for married couples to have oral or anal sex in Virginia.


The Daily Show’s Aasiv Mandvi destroys the claim that “America has the best health care system in the world.”


Not everyone who agrees with Ayn Rand’s politics is a sociopath, but the underlying worldview is sociopathic.


For those of you waiting for Game of Thrones to get going again, here’s where the Dothraki language came from.

and let’s end with something funny

Jimmy Kimmel puts together the National Teachers’ Day message a lot of teachers probably wish they could send the country.

Does Paul Ryan Care About Poverty Now?

Ryan’s new report obscures a broad consensus about the government’s role in helping the poor.


On the surface, poverty appears to be one of America’s most polarizing issues. Liberals contend that people are poor because our economy doesn’t provide enough opportunities to get ahead. Conservatives argue that people are poor for personal reasons, because they are too lazy or feckless or drug-addicted to take advantage of the opportunities the system offers (or could offer if not for government interference).

Both sides can find examples to back their case. No matter how hard it might be to get out of poverty, some people muster heroic efforts and make it, while others confound every attempt to help them. In between are the people who jump at the brass ring, but somehow don’t manage to jump high enough. Maybe the ring could be lower, maybe they could jump higher — you can frame it either way. You could look at almost any failing individual and say, “He could be doing more.” But you can also find plenty of poor people whose struggles make you ask “Why does it have to be this hard?”

The partisan debate obscures something important: Underneath the polarized opinions about poor people in the abstract, Americans share a broad consensus about the kinds of people who need help and the kinds of things that should be done to help them. For example, just about everyone believes that the best way out of poverty is to get a good-paying job. Conservatives sometimes try to claim this position as their own, but in fact it’s pretty much universal. (Liberals disagree about how to create good jobs, not the value of getting one if you’re poor.)

That get-out-of-poverty-by-working plan might fail for one of four reasons:

  • There are no jobs for people like you.
  • The jobs you can get don’t pay enough to keep you out of poverty.
  • There are good-paying jobs available, but you don’t have the skills to get them.
  • There are jobs you could get if you wanted them, but you’d rather not work.

There’s even a broad public consensus about the appropriate government role in each case:

  • If there really is no job for you, the government should either create a job (by say, funding a WPA-style public works program or subsidizing jobs in the private sector) or support you directly at some level consistent with human dignity (through old-age pensions, disability payments, or long-term unemployment insurance during deep recessions).
  • If you are working at the only kind of job available, the government should provide (or make your employer provide) the extra little nudge you need to stay out of poverty. (Hence the minimum wage, the earned income tax credit, and a variety of supplemental programs like Food Stamps.)
  • If all you need to prosper is training, the government should help you get it. (Free public schools, inexpensive community colleges, job training programs, student grants and loans, and so on.)
  • But if you just don’t want to work, the government shouldn’t help you at all. You need to learn to take responsibility for yourself.

A few people would argue with each of those positions, but not anywhere near a majority. Our substantive political arguments over poverty aren’t about what to do with the people in each category, but rather which category is typical and how well government programs target the people in the category they’re supposed to help.

So liberal rhetoric focuses on people in the first three categories, who are legitimately seeking the help that Americans are proud to provide for each other. (Some other countries may let good people starve in the streets, but that’s not who we are.) Conservative rhetoric focuses on people in the fourth category who nonetheless get benefits because they masquerade as people in one of the first three categories: They aren’t really disabled, they are getting by fine without assistance (and so blow their Food Stamps on luxuries), and they aren’t really looking for a job or training for one. They’re just soaking up government benefits because they can. If those benefits went away, they’d realize that they have to get off their butts and work.

Few seriously dispute that both kinds of people exist: those who need and deserve government help, and those who get it even though they shouldn’t. The argument is more about the number of people in each group and (more subtly) something I’ve called the mercy/severity balance: How many people who need and deserve your help are you willing to leave to fend for themselves in order to prevent one lazy guy from cashing his government check and laughing at you?

For example: The USDA estimates that about 1% of Food Stamps are illegally sold for cash, while 3% of benefits are overpayments to people who either don’t qualify or shouldn’t get as much as they got. Does this strike you as a huge scandal that brings the legitimacy of whole program into question? Or do you focus instead on the good done for families who qualify for Food Stamps legitimately and use them as they were intended?

If somebody came up with an auditing program that would eliminate this waste and fraud, but would cost more (because paying auditors is expensive) than it saved, would you be for it or against it? What if it cost double what it saved? Ten times? A hundred?

From the conservative focus on the fourth category comes the conservative anti-poverty plan: If the way out of poverty is to take jobs that are readily available, and if the possibility of conning the government is keeping people from taking those jobs, then the way to reduce poverty is to cut government anti-poverty programs. Of course this means that some number of people who need and deserve help won’t get it, but that’s collateral damage.

Now you’re in a position to understand The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later, a report put out last Monday by the staff of the Republican majority of the House Budget Committee, i.e., Paul Ryan’s staff. In particular, you understand its conclusion:

Today, the poverty rate is stuck at 15 percent — the highest in a generation. And the trends are not encouraging. Federal programs are not only failing to address the problem. They are also in some significant respects making it worse.

The report looks extremely well supported — it has 683 footnotes, most of which reference reports by academic or government researchers (sometimes inaccurately). But looks are deceiving. For example, you’d think a statement like “Federal programs … are making it worse” would be footnoted to death. It’s not. Instead, what you’ll see if you go through the report’s review of nearly 100 government programs, is a lot of “results were not demonstrated” (said about the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) or “The program’s costs outweigh its benefits to society” (Job Corps) or “the program didn’t have any performance metrics or targets for the level of performance.” (Emergency Food and Shelter Program). I quit after reviewing about half the programs, but I didn’t find a single “Poor people would be better off without this program” with a footnote to a study proving that point.

That’s typical. The ten-page Overview at the front of the report seems to float freely above the evidence collected in subsequent sections. A lot of the evidence presented in the overview is of the correlation-is-not-causation variety. For example:

The Brookings Institution’s Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill point out that if a person works full time, gets a high-school education, and waits until he or she is married to have children, the chances of being poor are just 2 percent.

Of course, a lot of things are probably already going right in your life if you’re able finish high school, find a full-time job, and attract someone you’d want to marry. It’s not any great surprise that you’re not poor, and I’m not sure what there is to learn from that fact.

Only 2.7 percent of Americans above the age of 16 who worked full time year-round were in poverty, even in 2007 — before the Great Recession had taken firm hold.

Since recessions increase poverty by raising unemployment, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that people who kept their jobs didn’t get poorer. And what really should grab our attention is: There are people who work full time year-round and are still poor! Why isn’t that rate zero?

Another substantive claim of the overview is:

since the beginning of the War on Poverty … male labor-force participation has fallen dramatically. In 1965, it was approximately 80 percent. Today, it has fallen to a record low of below 70 percent. Since 2009 alone, male labor-force participation has fallen 3.3 percentage points. Among working-age men, the labor-force participation rate has fallen from 97 percent in 1965 to 88 percent in 2013. In recent years, female labor-force participation has also declined. Since it reached its record high of 60.3 percent in 2000, female labor-force participation has fallen to 56.9 percent — declining 2.5 percentage points since 2009. And among working-age women, the labor-force participation rate has fallen from 77 percent to 74 percent from 2000 to 2013.

But again, what’s the cause? The War on Poverty has coincided with a long-term reduction in male labor-force participation, but is there some reason to believe that’s anything more than a coincidence?

The implication is that anti-poverty programs encourage laziness, particularly in men. To conservatives, I’m sure this conjures up images of able-bodied 20-somethings choosing to hang around on street corners rather than look for work. (Liberals are more likely to picture multinational corporations shipping jobs overseas.) But if you get into the discussions of specific programs that the report claims discourage work, you get a different picture. For example:

[E]xpansions of the [earned income tax credit] are associated with a reduction in labor market participation by married mothers.

In other words, in poor households where both parents work, mothers are likely to cut back their hours (and spend more time at home with the kids) if the family is better able to get by on what the father makes. Another example:

SSI reduces the labor supply of likely SSI participants aged 62–64. A $100 increase in SSI benefits is associated with a 5 percent reduction in the employment rate.

In other words, people who are limping towards retirement with disabilities will retire sooner if they can afford to. That’s not exactly strapping young dudes hanging out on street corners, is it? (Maybe one of those young guys will get the job that the guy with the bad back retired from.)

So when you get down to details, the overview-level statements are less convincing than they sound. And that connects to a third point:

Congress has taken a haphazard approach to this problem; it has expanded programs and created new ones with little regard to how these changes fit into the larger effort. Rather than provide a roadmap out of poverty, Washington has created a complex web of programs that are often difficult to navigate.

Imagine what Republicans might say if Congress had taken a unified approach. Wait, we don’t have to imagine, because the Affordable Care Act was a unified program with a comprehensive vision of increasing access to health care. Republicans complained about its mammoth size and invented all kinds of scary stories about what might be hidden in that enormous law.

That’s why there are hundreds of anti-poverty programs. If liberals presented one unified program to help the poor, we’d hear about this incredible octopus that had its tentacles in everything and was thousands of pages long and had an unimaginable cost. Every story of someone abusing a poverty program would be an argument against the whole thing. So instead, we have $65 million going to a separate “Education for Homeless Children and Youth” program and $11.5 million for “Job Placement and Training” for American Indians. If you want to cut them, you have to explain why you don’t want to educate homeless children and youth, or find jobs for Indians.

This is the basic dichotomy of American politics: In the abstract, voters will tell you that government spends too much. But the vast majority of things that the government spends money on are popular. No one would be happier than liberals if we could create a unified vision of how to help the poor, and then fund that vision. But I doubt that’s what Ryan is talking about, and I fear that he wants to unify the anti-poverty hydra so that there is only one throat to cut.

In short, it would be wonderful if Ryan’s report represented an honest attempt to examine what works and what doesn’t, and to assemble a unified program to do what the broad consensus of Americans want done: support the unemployable, find a job for everybody who wants one, make sure that people who work full time stay out of poverty, train people who have the talent and desire to move up to skilled labor or the professions — and keep lazy people from abusing the system.

I wish I could believe it did.


An interesting side-debate raised in the footnotes of the report is whether the War on Poverty is failing at all. The report references “Winning the War: Poverty from the Great Society to the Great Recession” by Bruce Meyer of the University of Chicago and James Sullivan of Notre Dame. They propose measuring poverty by consumption rather than income, and they adjust for inflation differently. I can’t judge whether they’re right or not, but they show a different story than the official poverty rate. Their measure of poverty starts far higher 50 years ago and drops far lower today.


Another side-debate could happen over what success means. The report says:

The true measure of success is the number of people who get off these programs and get out of poverty.

And certainly everyone should agree that when a government program helps a poor person get a good job and join the middle class, that’s a success story. But limiting the suffering of the poor is a worthy goal in itself, and sometimes a government program succeeds simply by keeping things from getting worse.

For example: The United States has a terrible rate of what public-health professionals call “amenable mortality” — people who die of treatable conditions because they don’t get appropriate medical care. If the subsidies in ObamaCare bring that rate down, I’ll count that as a success.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Two things happened this week that involve Paul Ryan: The Republican majority of the House Budget Committee (which he chairs) issued The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later, and possible 2016 presidential candidates auditioned for the Republican base at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Ryan didn’t do well in the CPAC straw poll and the cheers at his speech were tepid, but he did succeed in annoying liberals with a phony story about a poor kid and his government-provided lunch. Congratulations, Paul. Mission accomplished.

The poverty report is fascinating because of what it obscures: the general consensus in America about how the government should help people who need help. I’ll lay out what I think that consensus is and how Ryan’s smokescreen works in “Does Paul Ryan Care About Poverty Now?”

The weekly summary will discuss the Ukraine/Crimea situation and CPAC, and link to various other interesting things I found this week, including Edwin Lyngar’s “I Lost My Dad to Fox News”, before ending with Jimmy Kimmel’s vision of what America’s teachers would really like to say to parents.

Hard to predict when the posts will appear; I still need to look some things up.

Service Plan

As Christians, our most deeply held religious belief is that Jesus Christ died on the cross for sinful people, and that in imitation of that, we are called to love God, to love our neighbors, and to love even our enemies to the point of death. So I think we can handle making pastries for gay people. … I fear that we’ve lost not only the culture wars, but also our Christian identity, when the right to refuse service has become a more sincerely-held and widely-known Christian belief than the impulse to give it.

Rachel Held Evans
back in 2012, I recommended Evans’ book Evolving in Monkey Town

This week’s featured post: “Religious Liberty and Marriage Equality

This week everybody was talking about Arizona’s S.B. 1062

Jan Brewer’s veto message is here. Lots of religious-right types didn’t like her veto one bit.

Two pieces by Christian writers are worth looking at. The first is the source of this week’s quote: “Walking the Second Mile: Jesus, Discrimination, and Religious Freedom” on Rachel Held Evans’ blog.

The second is “How to Determine If Your Religious Liberty Is Being Threatened in Just 10 Quick Questions” by United Church of Christ minister Emily C. Heath. None of the ten questions fits this situation exactly, but it’s not hard to follow the template and make one up: “My religious liberty is threatened because A) the law allows people like me to be singled out and treated worse than the general public; B) the law doesn’t allow people like me to single out others and treat them worse than the general public.”

Rev. Heath explains:

If you answered “A” to any question, then perhaps your religious liberty is indeed at stake. You and your faith group have every right to now advocate for equal protection under the law. But just remember this one little, constitutional, concept: this means you can fight for your equality — not your superiority.

If you answered “B” to any question, then not only is your religious liberty not at stake, but there is a strong chance that you are oppressing the religious liberties of others. This is the point where I would invite you to refer back to the tenets of your faith, especially the ones about your neighbors.

and Ukraine

I’ll stick mainly to background; I don’t think I can compete with CNN covering breaking news. Short version: After the leader Russia supported had to flee Kiev, Russian troops occupied Crimea, an ethnically Russian (and highly defensible) part of Ukraine. President Obama and the leaders of the EU are upset, but since nobody really wants to send troops, it’s not clear what they can do.

The underlying situation is a lot like the Georgian crisis of 2008, which I explained in “Unstacking the Matroyshkas“. Ancient empires have a fractal quality: There’s some group on top, which the empire’s various other groups feel oppressed by and want to be independent of. But if one of them succeeds in becoming independent, their territory will have its own minorities, who will see the group dominating the newly independent country as oppressors and want independence from them. And so on.

So now that Ukraine is free from the Russian-dominated Soviet Union, the southeastern part of Ukraine has a sizable Russian minority. That’s where Yanukovych’s support came from when he was elected in 2010. The recent protests that toppled him were largely in northern, ethnically Ukrainian cities like Kiev. The NYT’s “Ukraine in Maps” shows this really well.

Crimea is the Florida of the old Soviet Union, and is known for its Black Sea resorts. It’s 58% Russian and only 24% Ukrainian with a 12% Tatar minority. (So a Russian-backed takeover is not necessarily unpopular.) The Ukrainian Constitution makes Crimea an “autonomous republic”, but also says it is “an inseparable constituent part of Ukraine”. Crimean history is largely independent of the rest of Ukraine, going back to the Crimean Khanate established by the Mongol invasions.

The fascinating backstory of Crimea concerns those Tatars. They’re a Turko-Mongol group that joined up with Genghis Khan. (In the West they became known as Tartars, probably by association with the mythic Tartarus — if you were on the other side, they seemed like warriors from Hell.) They dominated Crimea during the Khanate, and usually sided with the Ottomans against the Russians. The Khanate fell in the 1700s and Russians started moving in. Stalin exiled the Tatars to Uzbekistan in 1944, but they’ve been drifting back ever since. They’re not too happy about the Russians coming back to power.

You know more Crimean history than you think. The Charge of the Light Brigade. Florence Nightingale. The Yalta Conference.

and a shrinking the Army

One result of the sequester was that the Pentagon shared in the across-the-board cuts. (That was supposed to make the sequester unacceptable to Republicans and bring them to the negotiating table. It failed.) So Secretary Hagel has put forward a plan to shrink the Army from 522,000 to less than 450,000.

However, by any reasonable assessment, the United States is not neglecting defense.

and the bankruptcy of an institution you’ve never heard of before

I’ve had a hard time figuring out what to make of the failure of the world’s largest bitcoin exchange, Mt. Gox, because I had never figured out what to make of bitcoin to begin with. Quartz explains how it works here, but the more important issue is Brad DeLong’s question: “Placing a floor on the value of bitcoins is… what, exactly?”

Bitcoin enthusiasts will tell you that every currency has that problem, and they’re right. After all, what if you took your dollars to the mall and discovered that all the merchants felt they had enough dollars and didn’t want any more of them? How exactly would you convince them that your engraved portraits of Alexander Hamilton are actually worth more than the pair of jeans you want? But DeLong explains how other currencies address the issue:

Underpinning the value of gold is that if all else fails you can use it to make pretty things. Underpinning the value of the dollar is a combination of (a) the fact that you can use them to pay your taxes to the U.S. government, and (b) that the Federal Reserve is a potential dollar sink and has promised to buy them back and extinguish them if their real value starts to sink at (much) more than 2%/year

In jails, POW camps, and (apparently) China cigarettes can become a currency. Even if you don’t smoke, somebody will want to smoke them, and that puts a floor on their value. (For moral reasons, luxury commodities make the best currencies, because they’re more hoardable. You might be willing to hoard your cigarettes in the face of smokers in nicotine withdrawal, but hoarding your water while people are dying of thirst is more problematic.)

The advantage bitcoin has over gold or cigarettes or government currencies is that (if all the associated technology works, which seems to have been an issue in Mt. Gox’ bankruptcy; The Verge claims “more than 1 out of every 20 bitcoins in the world vanished without a trace”) bitcoins are easy to transfer across borders, hard to steal, and your ownership of them is easy to hide. So it’s a convenient currency for transactions you want to keep secret: drug deals, money laundering, tax evasion, etc. (You can do any kind of transaction you want in bitcoin, including boring legal ones, but covert transactions are where it has unique value.)

Again, compare to the dollar. What you’re betting on when you hold dollars is that (if all else fails) there’s a floor of value under the dollar because somebody is going to want dollars so that they can pay taxes to the U. S. government. Similarly, what you’re ultimately betting on when you hold bitcoins is that somebody is going to want bitcoins to buy drugs, launder money, and avoid taxes.

The difference is that the dollar has a monopoly on the American-taxes market, while bitcoin is merely one possible private digital currency. If something like the Mt. Gox bankruptcy causes the shadow economy to favor some competitor, then the floor under bitcoin vanishes.

and you may have heard that the Republicans have a tax plan

Or at least one Republican does. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner have already rejected their own party’s plan. As with health care, Republicans would rather campaign on vague feel-good notions than make a serious attempt to govern the country.

Reasonable people would not have a hard time working out a tax compromise: Make a list of the most outrageous tax breaks (carried interest would be at the top of my list), then spend half the new revenue to on infrastructure and use the other half to cut tax rates.

and you also might be interested in …

Back on January 13 when everybody was talking about the polar vortex and the airwaves were full of deniers explaining why the cold weather disproved global warming, I wrote this:

Even when 2014 was just a few days old and wind chills were below zero for most of the country, there was a bet you could make that was almost a sure thing. No matter how it started, by its end 2014 will be yet another warm year. And by warm I mean: The global average temperature will wind up well above the 50-year average and the 20-year average.

Well, I didn’t have to wait for the end of the year. According to the National Climatic Data Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):

The combined global land and ocean average temperature during January 2014 was 0.65°C (1.17°F) above the 20th century average. This was the warmest January since 2007 and the fourth highest since records began in 1880. This marks the ninth consecutive month (since May 2013) with a global monthly temperature among the 10 highest for its respective month.

Slate’s Eric Holthaus elaborates: January was the 347th month in a row — every month since February, 1985 — that the global average temperature has been above the 20th-century average.


If you’re ready to give up on this planet, NASA just found 715 new ones, including a few that are more-or-less Earth-sized and might have reasonable gravity. Set a course, Mr. Sulu.


You can add Texas to the list of states whose same-sex marriage ban has been found to be unconstitutional. Judge Garcia’s ruling is almost a carbon copy of all the other post-Windsor rulings: The state does have an interest in creating a favorable setting in which to raise children, but banning same-sex marriage has no rational relationship to that goal. After a long string of losses around the country, the religious right needs to either give up or find a new rationale for its position.

and let’s close with something from the Daily Show

When Fox’s Judge Napolitano spewed a bunch of Confederate revisionist history, Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore set him straight in a hilarious way.

Religious Liberty and Marriage Equality

Are the principles that protect religious liberty secure, or are recent court decisions steps on a slippery slope?


One of this week’s big stories was Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s veto of S.B. 1062, “An Act … Relating to the Free Exercise of Religion“. Proponents claim that this law (and similar proposed laws around the country) is necessary to protect Christians from being forced to participate in same-sex marriage celebrations, in violation of their freedoms of conscience and religious liberty.

There’s one important thing you need to understand about this controversy: It’s symbolic. I went looking for cases where businesses were forced to deal with same-sex weddings and I found exactly five in the entire country.

  • In New Mexico, a photography business was successfully sued by a lesbian couple whose commitment ceremony (same-sex marriage being illegal in New Mexico) it refused to photograph. (I covered the ruling in a weekly summary last August.)
  • The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries ruled that a bakery had violated state law when it refused to make a wedding cake for another lesbian couple.
  • A judge in Colorado similarly ruled against a bakery.
  • A Vermont inn was sued for refusing to host a wedding reception for a same-sex couple, which the owners claim was a misunderstanding. The case was settled out of court, so we don’t know what a judge would have said.
  • A suit is pending against a florist in Washington.

Some writers make it sound like these are representative examples out of many, but they may well be the only instances to date.

Last June, the Pew Research Center estimated that over 70,000 same-sex marriages had been performed in the United States, plus an uncounted number of civil unions and legally unrecognized commitment ceremonies like the one in New Mexico. In all but a handful of them, people seem to have worked out whatever differences they had. Wedding planners, photographers, bakers, dress-makers, tuxedo-rental places, florists, celebrants, meeting halls, church sanctuaries … either they approved or they swallowed their disapproval or the couples took the hint and looked for service-with-a-smile elsewhere. Or maybe they found compromises they could all live with. (“I’ll sell you the cake, but you’ll have to put the two brides on top yourself.”)

In short, S.B. 1062 does not address a practical issue. Across the country, people are behaving like adults and working things out without involving the government. Governor Brewer recognized as much in her veto statement:

Senate Bill 1062 does not address a specific or present concern related to religious liberty in Arizona. I have not heard one example in Arizona where a business owner’s religious liberty has been violated.

The uproar is also symbolic on the other side. Critics of S.B. 1062 warned about “gay Jim Crow” laws, but just as there is no flood of suits against fundamentalist Christian florists, neither are large numbers of businesses waiting for the state’s permission to display “No Gays Allowed” signs. As The Christian Post pointed out, Arizona (like many other states) has no state law protecting gays from discrimination. (New Mexico does, which is why the lesbian couple won their suit against the photographers.) So outside a few cities that have local anti-discrimination ordinances, Arizona businesses are already free to put out “No Gays Allowed” signs without S.B. 1062. If any have done so, nobody is making a big deal out of it.

What this all resembles more than anything is the argument over the constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning. Actual flag-burnings are so rare that most of the amendment’s backers couldn’t cite a particular case, but they felt very strongly about it all the same. The few cases that actually exist are merely chips in a poker game; they are symbols of some deeper philosophical conflict, but mean little in themselves.

That’s not to say that philosophical conflicts are unimportant, but they are also not urgent. Because major injustices against one side or the other are not happening every day — and depending on your definition of “major injustice” may not be happening at all — we can afford to take some time to think this through calmly: What principles of religious liberty should we be trying to protect, and are any of those principles implicated in the cases that have been decided?

In my view, one basic principle is: No one should be forced to participate in a religious ritual. That’s why I don’t want teachers leading prayers in public school classrooms, especially when the children are too young to make a meaningful choice about opting out. For the same reason, it would be wrong to sue a priest who refused to perform a Catholic marriage ritual for a marriage his church did not sanction.

Some supporters of laws like S.B. 1062 (and the pending H.B. 2481) are citing this principle, but I think we need to be careful not to stretch the definition of a religious ritual. For example, civil marriage is not a religious ritual, so neither an officiating judge nor the clerk who issues a license is participating in religion. (If they were, that would seriously violate the separation of church and state.) Requiring that they do their jobs is not a violation of their religious liberty. The fact that you don’t make the laws and may disagree with them is a normal hardship of working for the government, not a First Amendment issue.

Similarly, a wedding reception is not a religious ritual; it’s a party that happens to take place after a religious ritual. Baking the cake or DJing the music or manning the bar are not sacramental roles, and do not deserve that kind of protection.

A second principle is: No one should be compelled to make a statement against his or her conscience. This was used as a defense in the Colorado bakery case. Administrative Law Judge Robert Spencer rejected it like this:

There is no doubt that decorating a wedding cake involves considerable skill and artistry. However, the finished product does not necessarily qualify as “speech,” as would saluting a flag, marching in a parade, or displaying a motto. The undisputed evidence is that [the baker] categorically refused to prepare a cake for Complainants’ same-sex wedding before there was any discussion about what that cake would look like. [The baker] was not asked to apply any message or symbol to the cake, or to construct the cake in any fashion that could be reasonably understood as advocating same-sex marriage.

So if a wedding-reception singer refused to sing some special gay-rights anthem, I would support him under this principle. But if he refused to perform at all, or refused to perform more-or-less the same collection of songs he does for everyone else who hires him, then I wouldn’t. Leading the friends and families of a same-sex couple in “The Hokey Pokey” is not a religious or political statement that should challenge anyone’s conscience.

Weighing against these exceptions is a public-accommodation principle that got established during the Civil Rights movement: If a business serves the public, then it should serve the whole public. The point of Jim Crow laws wasn’t to protect the consciences of white business owners, it was to exclude black people from the general public. If excluding gay and lesbian couples from the general public is the purpose behind refusing to serve them, that shouldn’t be allowed.

People try to fudge this principle by creating me-or-him situations. I grew up reading Ann Landers’ advice column in the newspaper. Ann used to regularly get questions like: “My good friend says she can’t come to my wedding if my other good friend is going to be there. What should I do?” As best I remember, her answer was always something like: “Invite everyone who you want to see there. If your friend doesn’t want to come, that’s her decision.” The same idea works here: Everyone should be invited to the marketplace. If you feel that the presence of gays and lesbians in the marketplace means you can’t be there, that’s your decision. No one has forced you out. (This is my answer to the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, who claim “Catholic Charities of Boston was forced to shut down its adoption services.”)

The other frequently raised issue has to do with venues: Will the law force my church sanctuary to be available for same-sex marriages? The idea that a sanctified site will be used for some unholy purpose strikes many people very deeply.

The case that is always cited — often not very precisely — involves a Methodist group, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association in New Jersey. The OGCMA owned a boardwalk pavilion, which the judge described as “open-air wood-framed seating area along the boardwalk facing the Atlantic Ocean.” The Methodist group used the facility “primarily for religious programming”, but had received a tax exemption for the property the pavilion was on. One condition of the exemption was that the facility be open to the public. The OGCMA had a web page advertising “An Ocean Grove Wedding”, which cost $250 in rent. The OGCMA did not conduct or plan the weddings, and the page said nothing about Methodist doctrines concerning marriage.

Until the OGCMA turned down a lesbian couple that wanted to celebrate a civil union in 2007, no one could recall a wedding being refused for any reason other than scheduling. After the couple sued, OGCMA re-organized its use of the pavilion. It stopped advertising it to the public and sought a different kind of tax exemption available to it as a religious organization. The judge found:

[The OGCMA] can rearrange Pavilion operations, as it has done, to avoid this clash with the [New Jersey Law Against Discrimination]. It was not, however, free to promise equal access, to rent wedding space to heterosexual couples irrespective of their tradition, and then except these petitioners.

Recognizing that the couple mainly sought “the finding that they were wronged” and that the OGCMA had not “acted with ill motive”, the judge assessed no damages.

In other words, this example is not particularly scary when you know the details. The principle here is pretty simple: If you worry about the sanctity of your holy space, don’t rent it out to the public – which is good advice in general, irrespective of same-sex marriage. If you do rent it out, then we’re back to the public-accommodation principle.

In conclusion, I’m not seeing anything particularly alarming in the five cases (six, if you add the boardwalk pavilion case) that are motivating people to support S.B. 1062 or similar laws. Reasonable principles are prevailing, and I do not see a slippery slope.

So if you’re worried about your minister being forced to bless a same-sex wedding in your sanctuary or go to jail, don’t be. It’s not happening and nobody is advocating for it to happen. Nothing in the cases that have been decided leads in that direction.

The Monday Morning Teaser

The first article to come out today will start with Gov. Brewer’s veto of Arizona’s anti-gay “religious liberty” law, and then pull back to the larger question: What religious liberties are people worried about, and are the more specific principles that protect those liberties in danger?

In the whole country, I could only find four cases in which businesses have faced legal action because they didn’t want to be involved in same-sex wedding celebrations, and I believe one of them hasn’t been decided yet. I read all three decisions, plus a decision concerning a religious venue for a civil-union ceremony. The judges seemed well aware of the principles of religious liberty, and I don’t see any reason to fear that their decisions are steps on a slippery slope.

I’m still working on the title, but the article should be out in an hour or so.

In the weekly summary, the most compelling issue is the way the Ukraine situation has turned into a big-power confrontation. I decided to link to the insightful stuff I’ve read rather than pull together an article of my own. The interesting sidebar on the story is the history of Crimea’s Tatar minority, which came west with Genghis Khan.

Also in the summary: the Army might get smaller, bitcoin, the Republicans (sort of) have a tax plan, and after all those loud claims that the cold winter proved global warming wasn’t happening, this January turns out to have been the fourth warmest January globally since 1880.

Worth and Respectability

It may be well and proper, that a man of worth, honesty, industry, and respectability, should have the rank of a white man, while a vagabond of the same degree of [negro] blood should be confined to the inferior caste.

– Justice William Harper of the South Carolina Supreme Court
State v. Cantey (1835)

This week’s featured post is “Are You Sure You’re White?“, a review of Daniel Sharfstein’s The Invisible Line: a secret history of race in America.

This week everybody was talking about the Ukraine

As I’ve said before, a one-man blog is not the ideal operation for covering breaking news, so I mostly don’t try. But the wall of fire during the Kiev protests was impossible to ignore.

And when Olympic skier Bogdana Matsotska left Sochi intending to join the protests, she raised even more attention.

By Saturday, President Viktor Yanukovych had been voted out of office and left the capital. New elections are planned for May. For the moment it looks like the good guys have won, but as we saw with the Arab Spring demonstrations in Egypt, it’s hard to turn street protests into a functioning democracy. Best of luck to the Ukrainians.

ThinkProgress provides background on what this was all about.


BuzzFeed reports that the Yanukovych government had been trying to buy favorable coverage from right-wing blogs. This fits the pattern I discussed in “Keeping the Con in Conservatism“.

For the record, I received no money to mention Ukraine in this post.

and (oddly) not Venezuela

A new reader pinged me with his hope that I’ll explain what’s going on in Venezuela, which left me too embarrassed to say “Is something going on in Venezuela?” It weird how little coverage this is getting.

As in Kiev, there are massive street protests in Caracas. Here’s some background from BuzzFeed. And the latest from Reuters.

The current president, Nicolás Maduro, has been in office ten months after succeeding the late Hugo Chavez.

and Ted Nugent

I try to stay away from the outrage-of-the-week, but this week I failed. The front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor in Texas campaigned with Ted Nugent, who recently called President Obama a “subhuman mongrel“, a phrase that had more zing in the original German. (Subhuman is untermenschen and mongrel is mischling.)

Nugent is a clown who doesn’t deserve my attention or yours, but a state attorney general and potential governor of Texas is another matter. Wolf Blitzer (who is Jewish and knows how the phrase translates to German) reacted with as much reserve as he could muster:

Shockingly, Abbott’s campaign brushed aside the criticism, saying they value Nugent’s commitment to the second amendment issuing a statement, “Ted Nugent is a forceful advocate for individual liberty and constitutional rights, especially the second amendment rights cherished by Texans. While he may sometimes say things or use language that Greg Abbott would not endorse or agree with, we appreciate the support of everyone who supports protecting our constitution.”

The incident raised the question of whether there is any criticism of Obama that conservatives will denounce, or any right-wing personality who is too hateful to associate with. Fortunately, Rand Paul and John McCain decided the line had been crossed. But it was sad to watch Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, and other Republicans dance around a clear condemnation.

If anybody wants to do a liberals-do-it-too comment, start with who the Ted Nugent equivalent is and what they said that equals “subhuman mongrel”. Then find me a Democrat as highly placed as Greg Abbott who campaigned with them.

and a raft of discrimination-against-gays-is-OK bills

A bunch of states are passing laws to meet the “religious freedom” needs of people whose God demands that they treat gays badly. The most extreme is Arizona, where Governor Brewer is weighing whether or not to sign the bill. (The business community is against it, perhaps fearing another boycott similar to what happened after Arizona passed its anti-immigrant law.) But similar bills are being debated in Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee, Kansas and Oklahoma.

The text is here. It’s short and sweeping, and does not directly mention gays at all. The key section is:

A person that asserts a violation of this section must establish all of the following:

1. That the person’s action or refusal to act is motivated by a religious belief.

2. That the person’s religious belief is sincerely held.

3. That the state action substantially burdens the exercise of the person’s religious belief.

“State action” has been expanded to mean a court’s enforcement a civil rights claim. Proponents are trying to fix what they see as the injustice of a New Mexico case, in which a photographer was sued and lost after refusing to deal with a gay couple.

Reading the Arizona law, I fail to see why it wouldn’t apply to a restaurant owner who wanted to turn away black people, if his white supremacism were religiously based. (There are certainly churches you can join if you want to claim that right.) And even if I’m missing some legal distinction, I don’t see the moral distinction. The only justification I can see for separating the anti-gay bigot from the anti-black bigot is to argue that religious white supremacism is wrong, but religious rejection of homosexuality isn’t. And I don’t think the government should be empowered to decide whose religion is true.

In the larger view, I’ve stated my opinion before: I think this is all passive aggression. No one sincerely believes that his or her immortal soul is imperiled by taking pictures of gay couples or putting two grooms on the top of a wedding cake. It’s an exaggerated sensitivity invented to control the actions of others and justify acts of bigotry.

and looked back at the stimulus

It’s been five years since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was signed into law, so it was time to restart the argument about what it accomplished.

The point hardly anybody appreciates is that when you combine state and federal spending, there was no stimulus. Federal spending just replaced state cutbacks. The graph below shows the number of employees at all levels of government. (The blip in 2010 is temporary workers for the census. You can find a similar blip during the previous census in 2000.)

Overall, federal employment has been down slightly during the Obama years. State and local employment dropped drastically when the recession hit, and would have fallen much further if not for money in the stimulus that went to the states. People ask: “Where are the jobs from the stimulus?” A lot of them are the teachers, police, firefighters, and nurses who didn’t get laid off.

So the main thing the stimulus did was prevent a massive deflationary cut in government, like what happened so disastrously in Europe.

but I’m still thinking about racism

What Should ‘Racism’ Mean?” became the fifth post in Weekly Sift history to go over 10,000 page views. Last I checked, it had over 19,000, which made it the fourth-most-popular Sift post ever.

It’s been drawing a number of comments, including objections, which I’ve been trying to answer as best I can.

Here’s the thing that has struck me in the negative comments. It would be entirely possible to look at the examples I gave (of President Obama and his family being denounced for things previous presidents have done without incident) and say: “Yeah, there is a small group of racially motivated folks who claim to be conservatives so that they can attack the black president, but that’s not really who we are. Real conservatives have plenty of legitimate objections to Obama and don’t have to stoop to this stuff.”

Instead, many commenters identify with anyone criticizing Obama for whatever reason and circle the wagons around them. As a result, it becomes easier to paint all conservatives as racists, which is not at all what I claimed.

This week I continued to focus on race in Are You Sure You’re White?, a review of Daniel Sharfstein’s The Invisible Line. I also ran across this great video illustrating the implicit bias I talked about last week.

In a hidden-camera experiment, three young people try to steal a bicycle in a well-traveled public park. The young white man draws a few questions but no one makes a serious effort to stop him or call the police. The young black man draws a crowd and the police are called. But most hilarious is what happens to the young white woman: Men stop to help her. That poor girl, she’ll never saw through that chain on her own.

Here’s a similar hidden-camera test where black and white men try to steal a car in broad daylight.

and you also might be interested in …

This 99-year-old Bulgarian spends every day on the street begging, but not for himself.


I love Rachel Maddow, but I have to agree with Bill Maher in this conversation when Rachel was a guest on his show: MSNBC is over-covering the Chris Christie scandal. Like Bill, I think BridgeGate is a legitimate scandal and I want to get to the bottom of it, but there’s not a whole segment (or more) worth of new developments every night.

I regularly tune in to Rachel’s show or Chris Hayes’ or Steve Kornacki’s , but these days I often think “Jesus, not this again.” Partly it’s the generic cable-news tendency to over-hype stories and try to get us hooked on every new detail. And I’m willing to be convinced that Rachel is accurate when she says that she covered Democratic governor Rob Blagojevich’s scandal just as intensely. But I found Blago’s villainy more amusing, and even so, I remember getting sick of that story too.

If you are similarly ignoring MSNBC and/or Bridgegate these days, I’ll let you know when something important happens.


Salon’s Brian Beutler blows up another ObamaCare horror story, and then suggests the obvious question:

I know the right is heavily invested not just in ignoring Obamacare success stories, but in cultivating the very horror stories they then use to attack the law. This, at least, doesn’t appear to be a case of the latter. I’m perfectly willing to believe that the Affordable Care Act has really left some people in categorically horrible situations. Given the numbers involved, I’d be pretty surprised if such people didn’t exist. But at some point it’s worth asking whether the apparent difficulty conservatives have finding them suggests that maybe the law isn’t wreaking all the devastation they want you to believe it is.


Wonder why other countries have faster, cheaper internet? Big cable companies like the proposed Comcast/Time-Warner monolith, and an FCC that caters to them.


Michael Sam won’t be the first openly gay player in a major American professional sport after all. The Brooklyn Nets picked up Jason Collins’ contract, and he played briefly Sunday. ESPN New York reports how strangely normal it all was.

Sure there was applause, and a few folks who stood up to recognize the magnitude of the moment, but if you didn’t know what was happening, you really would’ve had no idea something historic had just happened.


Economist Jared Bernstein challenges the idea that jobs are going unfilled because Americans aren’t trained for them.

When you hear employers complaining about how they can’t find the skilled workers they need, remember to plug in the unstated second part of the sentence, “…at the wage I’m willing to pay.”


Atlantic’s Garrett Epps points out that the Hobby Lobby case is open-and-shut if the Supreme Court follows its own precedents:

If so, Hobby Lobby and the other challengers don’t even get out of the starting gate. The Burger, Rehnquist, and Roberts Courts have all been clear: These plaintiffs have not suffered any injury worthy of redress under the Constitution.

However, that’s not how this Court’s conservative majority behaves. Witness the ObamaCare decision of 2012. In prior cases, the Commerce Clause clearly allowed such laws; constitutionality was not even seriously discussed when the law was being passed. But magically, a new legal theory appeared just in time to disallow the individual mandate under the Commerce Clause, and five Supreme Court justices signed on to that brand new interpretation. Chief Justice Roberts had to find a different justification to avoid invalidating the law completely.

Maybe the same thing will happen here. Law isn’t supposed to be suspenseful like this.

and let’s end with something fun

I never knew NBC’s Brian Williams did a cover of “Rapper’s Delight”. (Compare to the original.)

Are You Sure You’re White?

Daniel Sharfstein tells the story of three families who crossed the color line, and their descendents who forgot.


One of Dave Chappelle’s most memorable bits is his portrayal of Clayton Bigsby, a blind white supremacist who doesn’t know he’s black. Bigsby writes racist books whose readers also think he’s white. He lives in a remote area with few neighbors, and only appears in public in his KKK hood. A few white supremacist friends know the truth, but they keep the secret because “He’s too important to the movement.”

Bigsby is an exaggerated version of Mr. Oreo, a character created as a thought experiment by philosopher Charles W. Mills of Northwestern. Mr. Oreo was born to parents who identified as black and he appears black himself, but he has always thought of himself and described himself as white. At some point he goes through a medical process that alters his features, hair, and skin color so that he becomes indistinguishable from whites. Is he white? Or is there an unalterable underlying reality to his blackness?

According to professors who have discussed Mr. Oreo in class, students almost unanimously judge Mr. Oreo to be black. As David Livingston Smith explains in Less Than Human (his fascinating book on dehumanization, which devotes a lot of time to the belief that certain races are subhuman), our culture commonly believes that some personal traits are changeable (a weak man can go through a muscle-building process to become a strong man) while others, like race, are not.

We tend to think — perhaps in spite of ourselves — that black people constitute a natural kind, whereas weak people don’t. … We say a person has large muscles, but we say they are of a certain race. … A person can gain or lose muscle while remaining the same person, but we tend to think that if they were to change their race, it would amount to becoming an entirely different person.

Real life provides its own examples, some even more compelling than Mr. Oreo. In her 1949 autobiographical essay collection Killers of the Dream, Lillian Smith recalls Janie, a white-skinned little girl taken from a poor black family newly arrived in the colored part of town. (They “must have kidnapped her”, the local whites decided.) Janie was brought to live with the Smiths, and Lillian fell into a big-sister role.

It was easy for one more to fit into our ample household and Janie was soon at home there. She roomed with me, sat next to me at the table; I found Bible verses for her to say at breakfast; she wore my clothes, played with my dolls, and followed me around from morning to night.

But in a few weeks, word came from a distant colored orphanage: Janie only appeared to be white; she was “really” black and had to return to the black family who had adopted her. At first, Lillian could not see the sense in this, but eventually she yielded to superior adult wisdom.

I was overcome with guilt. For three weeks I had done things that white children are not supposed to do. And now I knew these things had been wrong.

In The Invisible Line: a secret history of race in America, Daniel J. Sharfstein tells a more elaborate and challenging story, one that “has been hiding in plain sight” for centuries. He describes it as a “hidden migration”:

African Americans began to migrate from black to white as soon as slaves arrived on the American shore. This centuries-long migration fundamentally challenges how Americans have understood and experienced race, yet it is a history that is largely forgotten.

In earlier eras historians have acknowledged the passing-for-white phenomenon, but considered it virtually untraceable. After all, anyone motivated to pass for white was even more motivated to hide the evidence. But the genealogy boom (empowered by easy access to records over the internet and the possibility of analyzing your DNA for information about your ancestors) has unleashed thousands of amateur investigators and turned up many new cases. Lots of Americans are not as white as they think they are, and some are starting to find out.

Sharfstein traces three families who crossed the color line at different points in American history.

The Gibsons. Prior to Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, race was not nearly as significant in Virginia as it later became. White indentured servants had more in common with the black slaves than with their upper-class masters, and mixed-race children were not unusual. The law classed a child as belonging to the same race as its mother. Gibby and Hubbard Gibson were mixed-race children of a white mother, and so were free. They moved inland, cleared land, and intermarried with the other frontier property-owning families.

As racial standards tightened generation-by-generation, the Gibsons stayed just on the favored side of the color line, and just far enough away from the race-conscious coastal cities that few cared enough to make an issue of their darker-than-average skin. They moved to North Carolina, and then to the wild western side of South Carolina. By the time they reached Kentucky and Louisiana in the 1800s, no one remembered that the family’s race had ever been an issue.

Gibson boys became officers in the Confederate Army, and Yale-educated Senator Randall Gibson of Louisiana played a key role in the negotiations that resolved the contested 1876 presidential election by trading Southern electoral votes for President Hayes’ promise to end Reconstruction. Randall also was a major player in the founding of Tulane University, convincing Paul Tulane to revise his bequest from “serve young men in the City of New Orleans” to “serve young white men in the City of New Orleans”.

A later generation married into the Marshall Field family of Chicago. As curator of the Field Museum of Natural History, Henry Field commissioned a series of sculptures illustrating over a hundred separate “races” for the Hall of Races of Mankind that opened in 1933. He had no clue he was anything but 100% European.

If anyone out there has media connections, I think The Gibsons would make a fabulous miniseries.

The Walls. Stephen Wall was a North Carolina plantation owner who never married, but fathered several children with his female slaves. In the 1830s he appeared to be selling his children to a plantation in Alabama, but in fact this was a ruse. Instead, a family friend delivered the Wall children to a Quaker settlement in Indiana, where Stephen provided resources for them to be raised and educated.

One of those children, O.S.B. Wall, was instrumental in convincing the Ohio governor to field a black regiment in the Civil War. He recruited black soldiers across the state and became a captain, though he arrived at the front too late to see combat. After the war, Wall moved to Washington, D.C., where he became part of a budding freedman aristocracy and held several positions in the local political machine.

But D. C. became one of the first places to disenfranchise blacks after the war. When the city ran into financial difficulties in the Panic of 1873, the federal government took direct authority over local affairs, shunting local elected officials aside for decades. When Democrats (who at the time openly identified themselves as “the white man’s party”) came to power with Grover Cleveland in 1884, white supremacy followed.

Captain Wall married a light-skinned woman, and his children found that they were frequently mistaken for white. His son Stephen married a white woman, but continued to identify as the son of a prominent leader in the black community, for all the good it did him. He was repeatedly let go from his job in the government printing office without cause, only to be rehired later. The final straw came when his indistinguishable-from-white daughter was barred from the public school in his suburban neighborhood, and he lost a series of court cases to have her reinstated, despite being legally in the right. (By prevailing definitions, Isabel’s black ancestry was sufficiently diluted that she should have been considered white. But whatever the text said, the spirit of the law was to protect white families from “falling” into the black community due to the discovery of an unexpected dark ancestor, not to allow a Negro man to marry a white woman and launch his children into white society.)

The family moved, changed its name to Gates, and began passing for white. Two generations later, Thomas Murphy (a “white” Georgian with considerable prejudice against blacks) got a nasty shock from his genealogy research. “You can’t call me a racist because I is one of you,” he told his black co-workers at the Atlanta airport.

The Spencers. Freed slaves had a hard time finding a place for themselves. Slave-owners viewed freedom as a contagious notion, so they didn’t want the freedmen around, and no state wanted to advertise itself as a destination for other states’ former slaves. For many, the solution was to go someplace without a lot of neighbors.

George Freeman and Jordan Spencer (who might been his son) were mixed-race freed slaves (of the white Spencer family) who settled in the hill country of eastern Kentucky in the early 1800s. They married sisters from a white family that passed through and left their daughters behind. When they ran into legal trouble from the local whites, Freeman stayed and hired a lawyer, but Spencer moved deeper into the wilderness. After he arrived in Johnson County, Kentucky, he didn’t exactly proclaim himself a white man, but he just started acting like one. White men, for example, were required to muster with the local militia and drill, while black men were forbidden to have weapons. Spencer showed up for drills, and nobody took it on themselves to tell him he shouldn’t.

At the time, even the South Carolina Supreme Court was recognizing the extent to which race was socially constructed. In an 1835 case, Justice William Harper wrote:

The condition of the individual is not to be determined solely by the distinct and visible mixture of negro blood, but by reputation, by his reception into society, and his having commonly exercised the privileges of a white man. But his admission to these privileges, regulated by the public opinion of the community in which he lives, will very much depend on his own character and conduct; and it may be well and proper, that a man of worth, honesty, industry, and respectability, should have the rank of a white man, while a vagabond of the same degree of blood should be confined to the inferior caste.

The hill country was more focused on clans than on races, and over time the Spencers became just another clan, darker than most, but respectable in their way. Jordan’s children intermarried with other clans — some of whom were not too clear about their own ancestry — who then found it convenient to describe the Spencers as white, if they were forced to describe them at all.

Two generations later, slavery was gone and Jim Crow had begun. Suddenly, one provable drop of “black blood” might be all it took to find yourself on the wrong side of the color line. George Spencer had moved across the border to the hill country of western Virginia, where he was doing fine until a feud started with a wealthier family, who started spreading rumors that the Spencers were “God damned negroes”. A slander trial ensued, with detectives going back to Kentucky to interview old people about where Jordan Spencer might have come from and whether he anyone had ever suggested he might not be white. A jury found against the Spencers, but the Virginia Supreme Court threw the verdict out and the case was never retried. That was enough for the locals to go on treating the Spencers as white, maybe with an occasional wink or nod.

Summing up. We look back on American history and say that people (including our own ancestors) were “white” or “black” as if those words had some natural meaning that remained constant through time and space. But in fact, the lines between the races have fluctuated, and even the apparent rules have applied differently to one family than to another. Sometimes all you had to do to cross the color line was move somewhere new and let people make assumptions about you.

At all times in American history, being considered white has brought certain advantages, and in every generation there have been light-skinned people who didn’t see why they or their children shouldn’t have those advantages. Both sides of the racial divide have had reason to minimize this phenomenon. For whites, the fact that the color line was fluid and permeable undermined the whole concept of white superiority. For blacks, those who forsook their black heritage lent credence to the notion that African ancestry was something to be ashamed of. And those who crossed over had reason to hope no one would ever find out, including, perhaps, their own children.

But reclaiming the “hidden migration” has a role to play in ending racism and healing the racial divide. Not only is racial purity an unworthy goal, it is a myth. We have never had racial purity in America. We are a lot closer to being one big family than most of us ever suspected.


BTW, I thought I’d head off an obvious comment: I realize that this post’s title assumes the reader is white (or thinks s/he is). I ask the indulgence and forgiveness of the Sift’s non-white readers. No inclusive title I could think of brought the issue to a head quite so sharply.

The Monday Morning Teaser

It’s been a busy week on the Sift.

Last Monday’s “What Should ‘Racism’ Mean?” is close to 19,000 page views and is still running. It has moved into 4th place on the Sift’s greatest hits list, passing one of my favorites “One Word Turns the Tea Party Around” at 18K. At this rate it should run past “Why I am Not a Libertarian” at 24K. But “Six True Things Politicians Can’t Say” at 69K and “The Distress of the Privileged” at 316K are still a long way out there. (I wonder if other blogs’ hit distributions look like that, with such extreme outliers. A typical featured post gets a few hundred hits, not counting the people who subscribe.)

Anyway, I’ve spent a bunch of this week responding to comments, which is why the Link of the Day hasn’t been even close to daily.

This week I’m going to take a different angle on the race theme with a review of Daniel Sharfstein’s book The Invisible Line: a secret history of race in America. It’s a generation-by-generation look at three American families who crossed the color line from black to white, eventually forgetting their black ancestors. It is both an amazing perspective on what it has meant to be white or black at various points in American history, and a meditation on just how socially constructed the whole notion of “race” is. (Spoiler: One of the families joins the Confederate aristocracy and includes a senator who played a role in ending Reconstruction.)

I called the article “Are You Sure You’re White?”. I realize that title implicitly leaves out my non-white readers, who I hope will forgive me and read the article anyway. (I think you’ll like it.) I couldn’t think of any more inclusive titles that would be nearly so clickable.

Beyond that, the weekly summary will try to catch up with what’s going on in Ukraine and Venezuela. The 5-year anniversary of the Stimulus brought a lot of retrospective debate. A series of state legislatures are considering bills that would redefine “religious freedom” as “freedom to discriminate against gays”. And I’ll end with NBC’s Brian Williams performing “Rapper’s Delight”.

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