15 September 2005

One might fail to fathom this

We learn from the latest Times poll:

For the first time, just half of Americans approve of Mr. Bush’s
handling of terrorism, which has been his most consistent strength
since he scored 90 percent approval ratings in the aftermath of the
Sept. 11 attacks. More than 6 in 10 now say that he does not share
their priorities for the country, 10 percentage points worse than on
the eve of his re-election last fall, while barely half say he has
strong qualities of leadership, about the same as said so at the early
low-ebb of his presidency in the summer of 2001.

At first I asked myself, “How can this be? He just admitted yesterday
that he’s not sure that the country is prepared, even now, to face a
terrorist attack and its aftermath, after seeing the problems of the
Katrina response.”

Then I remembered that the poll probably predates those remarks.

But I will be curious to see if the numbers go lower after that admission.

Posted in Politicks on 15 September 2005 at 10:21 am by Nate
8 September 2005

Can they get their stories straight?

Eventful couple of days on the gay marriage front.

First, the Mass. attorney general certified a ballot petition yesterday. What this means is that opponents of gay marriage can now go out and collect just under 70,000 signatures and qualify a constitutional amendment for the 2008 state ballot.

Second, the California legislature sent a bill legalizing marriage between “two persons” to the governator, who has indicated that he will veto the bill.

Arnold noted in his announcement that he would veto the bill that he thinks that this issue should be left to the courts or to a ballot of the people. The first part of that statement is the exact opposite of what gay marriage opponents often advocate; they DON’T want the courts to decide, preferring to let legislatures or popular elections decide the question. And what are legislatures for, if not for representing the people (obviating the need for an election on every issue of public policy)?

This is obvious. No one wants to come out and say, “Gay people are less desrving of the right to make civil contracts like the rest of us, and we therefore prohibit them from the right of civil marriage.” So instead they engage in buck-passing, saying that the decision should be anywhere other than where it is, under the guise of being more “fair”, “proper”, or “legitimate.”

So what’s more fair, proper, or legitimate: courts, legislatures, mass ballots? Why?

And so some of my cards are on the table, I think initiative petitions are bad public policy, and the evidence suggests that they are more captive to “special interests” than the regular legislative and judicial processes.

Posted in Politicks on 8 September 2005 at 11:50 am by Nate
12 August 2005

Religion as a reason for discrimination

With the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court, some of the
rumblings from conservative (mostly) Christians have focused on
Roberts’ religious beliefs

“We are going to be vigilant to make sure that there is not this
religious litmus test imposed,” said Tony Perkins, the president of the
Family Research Council, an evangelical Protestant group that is the
principal organizer of the telecast, which will take place at 7 p.m.
Sunday from a megachurch in Nashville.

” ‘Are you a Catholic? Do
you really believe what the Catholic church teaches?’ These kinds of
things shouldn’t be part of the discussion,” Mr. Perkins said.

As much as they may not like to do
so, it’s to their own advantage not to keep raising this.

Of late, the religious right–especially the Christianists–have
engaged in the political hypocrisy evident in Perkins here.  They
want religious belief to be an accepted logic of political choice, but
they do their best to create a black box around that belief, separating
it from scrutiny.  In other words, they want the nation to accept
the basis for their political action while trying to prevent
questioning of that political action.  The logic is invidious and
circular: “The nominee is a Catholic and so may oppose an
abortion.  But if you ask why he opposes abortions, you
discriminate against him because of his Catholicism.”  Evil genius.

Interjecting religion into the public sphere in this way, simply, turns
it into a category of legitimate political discrimination.  This
is not a religious test, but this insistence on the right to use one’s
religious beliefs in coming to some or all of one’s political
conclusions means that the religious content of one’s beliefs can be
examined with respect to one’s capacity as an official serving the
public.

Let me make this more concrete.  Let’s say that a devout religious
believer receives a nomination for public office (or runs for public
office) of some sort.  In the decision to confirm or elect a
person, the public and its representatives have the right to examine
how s/he thinks.  The way that the potential official thinks about
public problems gives us some sort of predictor for the type of
official s/he will be, and the sorts of decisions that s/he might
make.  We need to know these things if we are to make an informed
decision as to whether we want to place a person in a position of
authority.  The essence of a representative form of government is
that we must be able to examine our officials and accept or reject
them, depending upon whether we like or dislike their beliefs and ways
of thinking.  To do otherwise is to accept some other form of
government, but not a respresentative democracy as we have come to
understand it in the West.

When we insist that people must be allowed to use their religious
beliefs to make their public, political decisions, we turn religion
into another of the many categories by which we may examine and discern
the acceptability of an official.  Our liberal system requires, of
course, that we not discriminate against, for example, John Roberts
because he is a Catholic.  But if his Catholicism leads him to
views about public matters that one finds unacceptable, then one is
obligated to oppose him on those grounds.  This might seem like
splitting hairs–to oppose a public official not because of his
religion but because of what his religion leads him to believe about
public policy–but it’s not.

The difference lies in the distinction between identity and
belief.  We’ve established in our politics (at least until now)
that we seek to not discriminate against a person because of who he or
she might be or see himself to be–the
question of identity.  But it’s perfectly permissible to
discriminate against a person for what she thinks.  We most
certainly do this when we choose someone based upon his party label,
because the party label is a shorthand for what the candidate
thinks.  (Even so, we probe party-identified candidates, to
ascertain to what extent they agree with the core beliefs articulated
by their party.)  Thus, we do not (ideally) vote against someone
because he is a Catholic, but because we do not agree that the
implications of his stated understanding of the public requirements of
Catholicism are acceptable public policy.  We do not vote against
a person who is black or Latina, but we may vote against her if she
notes that her status as a minority leads her to support affirmative
action (insofar as we might be against affirmative action).  In
the case of religion, if it is to be an acceptable characteristic in a
public official, we have to ascertain what the content of that
religious beliefs means for the rest of us.

Let’s say that we had a nominee for public office whose religion
required that it be the official religion of the state, in a polity
where no functioning official religion existed.  Not only would
being official require that the ceremonials and trappings of the state
be interlocked with the religion’s, but the laws, policies, and
officials of the state would all need to conform to the religion’s
dictates.  The citizenry might even be required to conform to the
religion, as a condition of citizenship.  If we could not
discriminate against the implications of belief, simply because those
implications rise out of religious belief, then we undermine the
legitimacy of discriminating against or for a candidate on any other
grounds.

Furthermore, it cheapens religion, in some sense, to become a political
category in this fashion.  Most polls and case studies of the role
that religion plays in the lives of citizens in our polity indiacte
that it is among the most cherished aspects of the religious person’s
life.  To use religion in the fashion that the religious right
wishes has the great likelihood of making religious identity
ontologically identical to membership in the League of Women Voters or
the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  This is not to say that religion
has no place in our public life, but the use of belief as a tactic and
strategy to gain unquestioned power reduces the religious claim to
offer help in touching the transcedance of ordinary material life.

Tocqueville puts the danger of religion claiming an all-ecompassing
role nicely: “…Religions should be most careful to confine themselves
to their proper sphere, for if they wish to extend their power beyond
spiritual matters they run the risk of not being believed at all. 
They should therefore be at pains to define the sphere in which they
claim to control the human spirit, and outside that sphere it should be
left completely free to follow its own devices.”

This does not mean religion has no role in the public arena.  But
if religious belief overreaches, it can lose its distinctiveness and
power.  And that harms both religion and democracy.

Posted in Politicks on 12 August 2005 at 11:03 am by Nate
14 July 2005

The Church isn’t to blame…

…apparently.  It’s the political and social beliefs of the people that are, according to Extreme Right spokesperson Rick Santorum
A number of people are quite unhappy that he is, in a fashion, blaming
the victims (and their culture) rather than their perpetrators in the
clergy sex abuse scandal.

This man is a hypocrite.  In one breath, he says that individuals
are responsible for their actions, making their own choices.  In
the next, he says that society’s to blame.  Which is it?

The sniping and idiocy continued today, as Santorum noted the
atmosphere of sexual permissiveness that pervades Boston (really, has
he been here? I haven’t seen this…).  Of course, if this were
the cause of the clergy scandal, then San Francisco, New York, and LA
would have been where it was all centered.  And yet, it happened
all over the country, and we’re beginning to see evidence of it through
the world.

Then the good gentleman blamed Harvard and MIT, because of their liberal attitudes.

More commentary available here.

Specifically, here’s what Santorum wrote about the church pedophile
scandal on a religious website called Catholic Online. ”When the
culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it is no
excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of
academic, political, and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the
center of the storm.”

So thank you, senator, for setting us
straight about the problems with the clergy. Thank you for letting us
know that all those pedophilic priests and the church leaders who
covered up their crimes are the fault of every Bostonian.

Who
knew that the president of Harvard, the people at the Museum of
Science, and Mayor Thomas M. Menino were to blame for Cardinal Bernard
F. Law’s decision to move predatory priests from one parish to another?
Here’s who knew: Senator Rick Santorum.

I remind you of the alternative meaning of “santorum.”  Go to Google, type in “santorum” and hit “I’m feeling lucky.” 

It’s very interesting how the hard right has taken to the advocacy of
crushing evil.  Any position that does not accord with theirs
derives from a culture or a fact of evil.  So liberals are not
just wrong or misguided.  They are actually evil, or deceived by
evil.  And thus, disagreement itself ceases to be value-neutral
and becomes evil.  “Do not think, do not speak, do not do
anything, or you will be marked as a captive and agent of Evil,” they
imply and even say quietly.

Posted in Politicks on 14 July 2005 at 12:23 pm by Nate
27 June 2005

Information everywhere wants to be free but is in chains

A couple of Supreme Court cases dealing with very different aspects of
the freedom of information and ideas have come down, and they are blows
for those who want free inquiry and the growth of understanding to
continue.

First, the court refused to hear the appeal of the reporters in the
Valerie Plame case.  So, for doing their jobs, these two people
will go to jail.  What’s infuriating here is that the law, in its
majesty, has been applied and used unevenly.  The reporters from
the New York Times and Time Magazine may go to jail.  But the
leaker and the syndicated right-wing columnist Bob Novak (who
originally leaked the material on Valerie Plame) haven’t been pressured
at all.  The leaker can’t be punished because we don’t know who it
is.  But Bob Novak is quite obviously a good shill for the
administration, whereas real reporters aren’t easily controlled.

The Court also ruled that the software companies who create file
sharing programs can be held liable if their software is used to do
illegal things.  This seems rather odd.  If the principle
were applied evenly, then we’d hold auto companies liable when drivers
speed, computer companies responsible when users hack into private
sites and data, or phone companies liable when people conduct illegal
business over the phone.  And, lacking evidence that does not come
from a record company or some other “interested party” about how file
sharing networks are actually used, I won’t buy the argument that the
only or primary use of such software is for illegal purposes.

But hey, free, open, and honest inquiry and learning is hardly valued in our society.  Not when there is money to be made.

Posted in Politicks on 27 June 2005 at 1:01 pm by Nate
20 June 2005

Gay marriage virus?

Interesting article in the Times Magazine,
about the Christianist “real problem” with gay marriage. 
Unsurprisingly, they believe homosexuality to be a chosen, infectious
behavior that, like a disease, has to be eradicated. 

(Interestingly, Mark Jordan, a religious historian at Emory University, has written a history that shows , among other things, that this belief in the viral nature of homosexuality has existed for nearly 1000 years.)

What I found more interesting was the concluding bit of the
article.  If love is seen as hate, and hate is seen as love, then we’ve all lost already.

That means changing hearts. How difficult that will be was illustrated
by a single vignette. When I met Polyak, she told me how, when she
first testified before a legislative committee, an anti-gay-marriage
activist, a woman, confronted her with bitter language, asking her why
she was ”doing this” to the woman’s children and grandchildren.
Polyak said the encounter left her shaken. A few days later, as I sat
in Evalena Gray’s Christmas-lighted basement office, she told me a
story of how during the same testimony she approached a blond lesbian
and talked to her about the effect that gay marriage would have on her
grandchildren. ”Then I hugged her neck,” she said, ”and I said, ‘We
love you.’ I was kind of consoling her to some extent, out of
compassion.”

I realized I was hearing about the same encounter from both sides. What
was expressed as love was received as something close to hate. That’s a
hard gap to bridge.

Posted in Politicks on 20 June 2005 at 9:36 am by Nate
14 June 2005

When Scott (and Daren and Kenneth) met Hayek

On the conservative movement’s subsidization of its next generation(s) of applied intellectuals.

It’s no surprise that this is the case, if you work on a college
campus.  As I have noted before, the conservative students here
and at Berkeley were often the most thoughtful about why
they
held the political beliefs that they do.  (More than one of my
favorite students have been *gasp* Republicans, and I know that at
least one of them reads this blog [Hi, Liz!].) Yes, they are a definite
minority, but the refining fire of having to defend themselves over and
over again has sharpened them.  Probably a similar proportion of
the liberal students are as equally well equipped.  The vast
majority of our students seem to be center-left to left but aren’t sure
why that is.  Lest anyone think this is a trait peculiar to one
side of the political spectrum, I now plenty of conservatives (mostly
from my hometown and family) who know what they believe but not why
they believe it.  Conformity knows no party.

I think the conservative claim, implied in this article and stated in
other places, that there’s some sort of liberal orthodoxy enforced on
college campuses by a sort of doctoral gestapo is highly misleading, if
not a lie.  In our capacity as teachers, most of us work very hard
to obscure our own political beliefs and to teach our students to think
critically no matter whether they agree with the views presented or
not.  And since many of my students are unthinkingly toward the
left, I tend to present a conservative viewpoint at least as often as a
liberal one.  When my students ask me on paper what I want to see
(in not so many words), I end up repeating over and over (and grading
as such) that I don’t care if they write something that I might agree
with–if it is badly argued, I will pull it apart and their grade will
be less than the highest.  Some of them do actually learn to
question all received wisdom, and that can only be good in their
political, personal, and spiritual lives.

But for all the talk in this article, I don’t think that this is what
is happening in programs like Heritage’s.  Are these students,
when they read Hayek also reading Polanyi?  If they read Burke,
are they also getting doses of Tom Paine and J.S. Mill?  If they
read Nozick, will they also consider Rawls?  And do they read
(which I assume they will reject in the end) Foucault?  I’d put
money on the fact that they are not.  Even when you’re really
smart, there’s still a difference between indoctrination and
education.  In a program like Heritage’s (and the corresponding
liberal ones mentioned in the article), these students are not being
made into citizens.  Culture warriors, perhaps.  But in
education, I hope we aspire to a higher standard, to Plato’s
exhortation to do the right and love the good, no matter where that
takes us and our beliefs.

Posted in Politicks on 14 June 2005 at 10:02 am by Nate
10 June 2005

As Unamerican as Pepsi!

Got this in the mail this morning:

Don’t buy Pepsi in the new can. Pepsi has a new “patriotic”
can coming
out with pictures of the Empire State Building, and the Pledge of
Allegiance on them. However, Pepsi left out two little words on the
pledge, “Under God.” Pepsi said they didn’t want to offend anyone. In
that case, we don’t want to offend anyone at the Pepsi corporate
office, either. So if we don’t buy any Pepsi product, they will not be
offended when they don’t receive our money that has the words “In God
We Trust” on it.

This is apparently an urban legend, as documented at many urban legend sitesHere’s the best one.

The pledge of allegiance, as originally written, did not have the words
“under God” in it.  Those words were added in the mid-’50s,
as part of that Red Scare, to contrast the nation to “godless
Communism.”  Interestingly, it was almost entirely the work
of the Knights of Columbus.  And as you will see from the
history below, it depended on some scare-mongering of a sort, raising
the spectre of little Muscovites being able to recite it in present
form.  (It’s interesting that God seem to show up in the
public discourse much more at the most uncivil, most divided times of
our history.  Everyone seems to want God for their side, when
they feel beleaguered, not when peaceful.)

I
don’t really drink soda, so it’d be hard to participate in this
boycott, but I also think that this is a silly
issue, and that there are far more pressing ones to get excited
about.  Failure to say the pledge of allegiance will not lead to a
mass movement of disloyalty to the nation.  We seemed to get on
quite well as a nation for 120-odd years before it was introduced, and
another 60 or so before God got invoked.  And somehow the nation
remained coherent and fairly religious without a daily morning
reminder.  There’s a lot of talismanic superstition surrounding a
number of our national symbols, as if their destruction (flag-burning,
pledge alterations, invocations of God in money and such) would lead to
a cosmic necessity to destroy the nation.

Also, boycotts like this often seem to assume some sort of
covenish machination on the part of the company, when it’s usually just
incompetence or a tendency for some people to see conspiracy everywhere.  More often it seems to be the latter.

Some interesting background history:

In
1953, the Roman Catholic men’s group, the Knights of Columbus mounted a
campaign to add the words “under God” to the Pledge. The nation was
suffering through the height of the cold war, and the McCarthy
communist witch hunt. Partly in reaction to these factors, a reported
15 resolutions were initiated in Congress to change the pledge. They
got nowhere until Rev. George Docherty (1911 – ) preached a sermon that
was attended by President Eisenhower and the national press corps on
1954-FEB-7. His sermon said in part: “Apart from the mention of the
phrase ‘the United States of America,’ it could be the pledge of any
republic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar
pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow.” After the service,
President Eisenhower said that he agreed with the sermon. In the
following weeks, the news spread, and public opinion grew. Three days
later, Senator Homer Ferguson, (R-MI), sponsored a bill to add God to
the Pledge. It was approved as a joint resolution 1954-JUN-8. It was
signed into law on Flag Day, JUN-14. President Eisenhower said at the
time: “From this day forward, the millions of our schoolchildren will
daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural
schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the
Almighty.”  With the addition of “under God” to the Pledge, it became
both “a patriotic oath and a public prayer…Bellamy’s granddaughter
said he also would have resented this second change.”

Posted in Politicks on 10 June 2005 at 10:57 am by Nate
7 June 2005

From land of whaling to land of wealthy

We were in Nantucket this weekend, and got back Sunday.  By coincidence, the Times ran an article on the new hyper-rich of America, and the effect they are having on places like Nantucket.

I found this one of the most interesting parts of the day’s articles:

Note how money is moving toward the disparities we saw in the early 20th century.

Anyway, as regards Nantucket, I found the clash between the old nouveau
riche and the new nouveau riche quite fascinating, and I wonder if the
process we have seen in the past will repeat itself, with the new rich
becoming classy and part of the money society, rather than crass
spenders.

Moreover, I wondered.  Just as Edith Wharton chronicled the rise
of the rich in the Gilded Age, I wonder who our chronicler of the New
Gilded Age will be.

There’s been a little discussion running in the comment section of an earlier entry on this series
The discussion has been on which constitutes the greater, more
affective marker of class: educational-type attainment or gross
wealth.  I’m going to remain cagey on the matter, as I’m enjoying
watching my friends try to figure this out.  but I have to wonder
if the lesson from the other day’s Nantucket article is that the rich
develop “class” as they settle into their money.  The old rich in
the article are not necessarily the new rich of 100 years ago.  Go
to the island, and the leading families–the Starbucks, the Coffins,
the Gardners–are mostly the descendants of some of the original 17th
century settlers.  They have been this way for hundreds of
years.  And the nouveau riche of the 19th century are not so
well-represented.  So I’m not sure that we can depend upon the new
rich developing the sense of obligation or of the privilege of
privilege.

Posted in Politicks on 7 June 2005 at 10:41 am by Nate
1 June 2005

God’s not a capitalist

Slacktivist takes up National Association of Evangelicals’ president Ted Haggard’s claim:
“They’re pro-free markets, they’re pro-private property. … That’s
what evangelical stands for.”  12 times.  With a John Paul II
reference thrown in for a 13th.

Posted in Politicks on 1 June 2005 at 10:22 pm by Nate