The Progressive Paradox

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big picture stuff

At The Atlantic, Derek Thompson writes “Why Middle-Class Americans Can’t Afford to Live in Liberal Cities.” In brief, housing costs, and income disparities, tend to be higher in “blue” metro areas than “red” ones, and this is supposed to point to a failure in liberalism. What follows is my comment to the article.

This article should be studied as an exercise in logical fallacy. First, the argument that metro areas must be run by “liberals” if voters there preferred Obama in the last election rather falls apart if you look at the actual metro governments. For example, New York City’s last two mayors, Giuliani and Bloomberg, were both right-of-center by most measures. When When Bill de Blasio was elected last year you could hear America reaching for the smelling salts — what, a real honest-to-God progressive liberal in charge of a major U.S. city? The end is nigh …

To me, the situation the article describes doesn’t say anything about whether “liberals” or “conservatives” are more committed to affordable housing, because nobody anywhere has done much about it in recent years. As I remember, the last time “affordable housing” was a noticeable part of a national political campaign Reagan was running for president. He made fun of the idea; the newspapers were full of “for rent” ads, so what was the problem? I remember this because I was living in New Jersey at the time and struggling to find a decent place I could afford for myself and two small children. Let’s just say I was not a Reagan voter.

Rent control was an attempt to keep the poor from being priced out of their apartments, but the side effects of that made matters worse in the long run. After the disaster of badly planned high-rise urban housing projects of decades ago, I’ve seen few attempts to come up with new solutions.

So nobody’s doing much, and affordable housing happens if it happens. Red states tend to have lower taxes but also lower property values. Many, such as Texas, have an overabundance of really cheap, and still empty, land. The coastal cities, by contrast, are often out of land; there’s no empty space to expand to. “New” development requires tearing down existing densely occupied neighborhoods. Inland cities, red and blue, are over-sprawled, and over time pockets of suburban poverty such as Ferguson, Missouri, have developed. So “cheap” is not necessarily “problem free.”

“Red” areas often have minimal regulations regarding housing standards, so there always are trailer parks with iffy sanitation and potentially hazardous conditions, but they’re cheap. Here in the NYC area even “affordable” housing is too expensive for low-wage workers. That so many manage to find places for themselves anyway is a testament to human ingenuity.

But the single biggest reason the “blue” metro areas are more expensive is that so many of the affluent want to live there, in spite of the higher taxes. We might reflect on why that is true. In the U.S. there is a correlation — not a perfect one, I acknowledge — between affluence and “blueness” — with some exceptions, more “liberal” leaning areas tend to be more prosperous than red ones. Are they prosperous because they are “liberal,” or liberal because they are prosperous? I propose that where people are more willing to tax themselves to pay for better school systems and nicer parks and other public works, there will be healthier economies and more “livable” cities, and the affluent naturally will want to live there. But that drives up housing costs and leaves the poor scrambling for places to live. So that’s a paradox.

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Why We’re Doomed, Part the Infinity

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Obama Administration

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More on the Kansas Experiment

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elections, Republican Party

Y’know, maybe we all should have been paying more attention to Kansas. I wasn’t fully aware that Gov. Brownback had not only refused to expand Medicaid under the ACA; he actually privatized it.

Let’s start with what looks like a re-written press release from 2011.

Gov. Sam Brownback and his administration’s top social service officials today unveiled their proposal for reforming the state’s Medicaid program.

In a nutshell, it would expand managed care to all currently on Medicaid, including nursing home residents, the disabled and the mentally ill. It also would prompt reshuffling of departments at four state agencies. Officials said the plan would save the state $12.5 million in the coming fiscal year and a total of about $367 million over the next five years.

The plan was to turn the Kansas Medicaid program over to private companies, who as we know always do everything better for less money, right? Anyway, the retooled Medicaid program was named KanCare, and lots of stuff got shuffled around from this department to that one, which obviously was another cost saving. So how did it work out? This is now:

Since Brownback’s inauguration, 1,414 Kansans with disabilities have been forced off of the Medicaid physical disability (PD) waiver. In January of 2013, Brownback became the first governor to fully privatize Medicaid services, claiming he would save the state $1 billion in 5 years without having to cut services, eligibility, or provider payments. Now, under Brownback’s “KanCare,” PD waiver cases are handled by for-profit, out-of-state, Fortune 500, publicly-traded managed care services. Kansas has contracts with three managed care profiteers — United Healthcare, Sunflower State Health Plan (owned by Centene Corporation), and AmeriGroup. Amerigroup and Centene each gave $2,000, Kansas’ maximum allowed contribution, to Brownback’s re-election campaign. …

… Brownback’s claims of savings without risking patient eligibility is mere sleight of hand when taking a closer look at the numbers. When Kansas experienced a $217 million revenue shortfall in April of 2014, Brownback actually broke a promise made to the federal government as to how many people with disabilities would be served. When applying to launch the KanCare program, the Brownback administration originally promised the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services it would accommodate 7,874 people on the PD waiver, according to numbers from the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services. After the first revenue shortfall, Brownback changed that number to 5900 – nearly a 25 percent cut in services amounting to $26 million.

Note that some of the services being cut could mean life or death for some people.

Death panels? Do I hear death panels?

One of the people whose services were cut complained.

Bullers, a former 15-year veteran reporter for the Kansas City Star and father of two, fought from the time of his managed care review in January of 2013 all the way to New Years Eve of 2013 for his full-time care to be restored. He used his status as a public figure in Kansas to organize awareness campaigns in both traditional and social media, and even arranged a meeting with Gov. Brownback. Bullers said he “got really pissed off” at Brownback’s response to a question he asked about not having a home care provider available if his ventilator came loose, stopping air from getting into his lungs.

“He said, ‘Just go over to your neighbor’s house and they’ll put it back on for you,’” Bullers said. “I mean, here’s the governor of the state of Kansas, telling me that, you know, your life isn’t worth it, that it’s okay if you die and leave two small children without a father.”

Death panels!

About a year ago The Pitch published a long expose on the screwup that is KanCare. The points it makes, in brief — Privatizing a service doesn’t make the cost go away; it just shift the cost around. And then in addition the private companies take profits and administrative costs, so less money goes to the patient. How in the world this scheme was going to save the state money seems to have been magical thinking. Ultimately the only way to make the program less expensive is just to pay for less stuff.

And I understand there have been issues with the private companies failing to disclose information to the state that has frustrated people responsible for eliminating fraud. See also KanCare companies lost money in first year.

And, of course, Brownback turned down million of federal dollars by refusing to expand Medicaid.

The wonder to me is that while Brownback has been trailing his Democratic opponent in polls, it hasn’t been by a huge amount. Apparently a substantial percentage of Kansas voters intend to return this loser to office.

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When Stupid Is an End In Itself

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economy, Obama Administration, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

Of all the many signs the U.S. is no longer a great nation — big, still wealthy, powerful, conspicuous, yes, but not great — the fact that we can no longer organize ourselves to so much as fix the flippin’ bridges, never mind build new ones, stands out. Much of the nation’s greatness, and weatlh, came from doing big, splashy things — the transcontinental railroad; the Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam, the moon landing.  Some of these things were done primarily by government, and some by public and private partnership. For example, while the transcontinental railroad was built by private companies, those companies depended on government land grants and loans, and the route itself was laid out by government surveyors. If Washington hadn’t pushed it, it never would have been done.

Paul Krugman writes that infrastructure investment is precisely what the country needs, economically and otherwise. It would both boost the economy by getting more dollars into peoples’ pockets and, y’know, fix the bridges before they fall down. But because of current prevailing political ideology, no, we can’t.

And it’s all about ideology, an overwhelming hostility to government spending of any kind. This hostility began as an attack on social programs, especially those that aid the poor, but over time it has broadened into opposition to any kind of spending, no matter how necessary and no matter what the state of the economy.

We’ve reach point at which stupid is an end in itself.

You can get a sense of this ideology at work in some of the documents produced by House Republicans under the leadership of Paul Ryan, the chairman of the Budget Committee. For example, a 2011 manifesto titled “Spend Less, Owe Less, Grow the Economy” called for sharp spending cuts even in the face of high unemployment, and dismissed as “Keynesian” the notion that “decreasing government outlays for infrastructure lessens government investment.” (I thought that was just arithmetic, but what do I know?)

Here’s a crucial point —

Never mind that the economic models underlying such assertions have failed dramatically in practice, that the people who say such things have been predicting runaway inflation and soaring interest rates year after year and keep being wrong; these aren’t the kind of people who reconsider their views in the light of evidence. Never mind the obvious point that the private sector doesn’t and won’t supply most kinds of infrastructure, from local roads to sewer systems; such distinctions have been lost amid the chants of private sector good, government bad.

If you look closely at most of the prominent Republicans in Washington, one of the striking things about them is that their bios often reveal them to be the creatures they claim to hate — lifelong political / government apparatchiks.  Although they pride themselves on being friends to business, most of them have worked most of their lives in government and politics. I’m sure there must be some exceptions, but most have never actually run a company or so much as managed an assembly line. Paul Ryan is a good example; according to bios I have read, his only non-political private sector employment was a summer job for Oscar Meyer, during which he got to drive the weinermobile.

I can never tell how much they believe their own crap, but basically we’re dealing with people who are long on ideological theory and short on experience. Unfortunately, you can say the same thing for most of our Captains of Industry, most of whom have no idea how the products they are selling actually get made.

It’s like a perfect storm of derp. The people in charge of things, public and private, have no idea how stuff gets done and no idea what stuff needs to get done. And the country is at their capricious and greedy mercy.

And it hardly matters that the states that have put the “Spend Less, Owe Less, Grow the Economy” mantra into practice have had disastrous results. See, for example, “The Great Kansas Tea Party Disaster” by Mark Binelli:

“That word, “experiment,” has come to haunt Brownback as the data rolls in. The governor promised his “pro-growth tax policy” would act “like a shot of adrenaline in the heart of the Kansas economy,” but, instead, state revenues plummeted by nearly $700 million in a single fiscal year, both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s downgraded the state’s credit rating, and job growth sagged behind all four of Kansas’ neighbors. Brownback wound up nixing a planned sales-tax cut to make up for some of the shortfall, but not before he’d enacted what his opponents call the largest cuts in education spending in the history of Kansas.

“Brownback hardly stands alone among the class of Republican governors who managed to get themselves elected four years ago as part of the anti-Obama Tea Party wave by peddling musty supply-side fallacies. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich – whose press releases claim he’s wrought an “Ohio Miracle” – has presided over a shrinking economy, this past July being the 21st consecutive month in which the state’s job growth has lagged behind the national average. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, whose union-busting inadvertently helped kick off the Occupy movement, cut taxes by roughly $2 billion – yet his promise to create 250,000 new private-sector jobs during his first term has fallen about 150,000 jobs short, and forecasters expect the state to face a $1.8 billion budgetary shortfall by mid-2017. A recent analysis by the Detroit Free Press, meanwhile, laid out how the tax policies of Gov. Rick Snyder, a wealthy entrepreneur who campaigned in Michigan as a nerdy technocrat, have resulted in businesses paying less ($1.7 billion less per year, to be exact), individuals paying more ($900 million per year) and – here’s the kicker – job growth slowing every year since Snyder’s cuts have been enacted.”

It will not matter that teabag economics crash and burn in the real world, because stupid has become an end in itself. Not taxing and not spending is an end in itself; that it sinks budgets and costs jobs does not matter.

And when the bridges begin to buckle, some Reince Priebus clone will trot out and say those bridges were built by Democrats and the fact that they finally collapsed after decades of neglect proves government doesn’t work.

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Sparkly Things That Distract Us From the Really Bad Stuff

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elections, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

The Washington Post has a story about evidence that non-citizens sometimes manage to vote in U.S. elections. The story is a bit squishy about actual numbers, however. It seems to be a very small number, although in an extremely close local election a small number of votes matters.

Note also that the story says there’s no evidence requiring photo IDs at the polls makes any difference. People who manage to register and vote without being citizens don’t seem to have a problem getting photo IDs. Duh. Interestingly, the authors of the article suggest that non-citizens most likely to vote possibly don’t understand they aren’t legally allowed to vote. More educated non-citizens are less likely to try.

Anyway, since these non-citizens tend to vote for Democrats, the wingnuts are freaking out.  The Right increasingly has to depend on gerrymandering and voter suppression to win elections, so it’s understandable that they’d seize upon any excuse for why it’s becoming harder for them to win elections fair and square on an even playing field.

But while the Right is having an outrage spasm over what may be a relative handful of illegal votes — as I said, the article is squishy about actual numbers — millions of dollars in dark money are underwriting much of the current campaign season. Thanks to Citizens United, we have no way to ensure that voters aren’t being “educated” and influenced by ads and literature paid for by foreign governments, companies and interest groups. And those foreign interests may not have America’s interests in mind.

Nicholas Confessore writes,

More than half of the general election advertising aired by outside groups in the battle for control of the US Congress has come from organizations that disclose little or nothing about their donors, a flood of secret money that is now at the center of a debate over the line between free speech and corruption.

The advertising, which has overwhelmingly benefited Republican candidates, is largely paid for by nonprofit groups and trade associations, some of which are established with the purpose of shielding the wealthy individuals and corporations that contribute. More money is being spent on advertising by the secret donors than by super PACs, the explicitly political committees whose fortunes have dominated attention with the rise of big money in politics.

Andy Kroll wrote back in 2012,

… for the secretive nonprofit groups pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the 2012 elections, the rules are different. These outfits, organized under the 501(c) section of the US tax code, can take money from foreign citizens, foreign labor unions, and foreign corporations, and they don’t have to tell voters about it because they don’t publicly disclose their donors. What’s more, with a savvy attorney and a clean paper trail, a foreign donor could pump millions into a nonprofit without even the nonprofit knowing the money’s true origin.

We don’t know that foreign interests are trying to sway the election, but we don’t know that they aren’t. We have no way to know. Although foreign money is supposed to stay out of our elections, thanks to Citizens United it wouldn’t be impossible for foreign elements indifferent or even hostile to American interests to influence how Americans vote. And if such interests haven’t tried it yet, they’ll get around to it eventually.

But you can’t get most wingnuts to understand why that’s a problem. Our righties are simple critters, easily distracted by the little stuff so they don’t notice the big stuff.

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New York Is Better

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Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

For the record, I’m neither surprised by nor worried about the Ebola case that turned up in New York. NYC not only has an overabundance of world-class medical facilities, it’s also one of the few places in the country that actually is vigilant about and prepared for things like bioterrorism (and I’m not implying the Ebola is bioterrorism) rather than just being hysterical about it. New York City is so not Dallas, thank goodness.

Steve M writes that Michelle Malkin and her fellow blogger Doug Powers are gloating that those smug New Yorkers will now freak out about Ebola as we should have, because to a conservative being scared and hysterical is patriotic, or something. As Steve M says,

Actually, no. It’s not going to happen here — at least it’s not going to happen among people who aren’t trying to stir up panic for political gain, which even the Postisn’t doing yet. We lived through 9/11. We lived through anthrax. You watched those moments on TV in the breakfast nook, Doug and Michelle. So shut the hell up.

Maybe it’s not that we’re so tough — we’re just dealing with something that’s become real for us. Fearmongering is easy when you’re sending fear out into a population you’re not a part of. The on-air personalities at Fox can cynically stir up viewers’ fears because the Foxers themselves don’t really lose sleep worrying that Ebola-infected undocumented Mexican-Muslims will overrun their cushy suburban homes and then vote illegally on absentee ballots obtained by the New Black Panthers and ACORN. It’s a remote fear for them, so they can callously stir it up. The same goes for the usual CNN fearmongering — it’s out there. But this is real in New York, and the normal human reaction is kicking in: we’re seeking answers, we’re looking for reassurances, and we’re sharing the best information we have. Our sense of fellow-feeling is kicking in.

Exactly. People who see a danger as a remote or hypothetical potential, or something that will happen to other people, can afford to be hysterical and enjoy the thrill ride of imagining the worst. If the danger is real to you personally you can’t afford to stand around and shriek; you have to keep your head and deal with it. And New Yorkers, bless ‘em, deal with it. There’s always some in the ‘burbs who take Fox News seriously and who will freak out, and some who will take cabs instead of subways for a few days, but the city will deal with it.  (See old post, “Dear Lulu: People Live Here.”)

By comparison, Texans — and wingnuts generally — are weenies. Let’s review:

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What Is It With Some Guys?

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Women's Issues

Since complaining about the upcoming elections is too depressing — even Sam Wang is giving the GOP an edge in the Senate now — I will complain about something else.

An article this morning on the culture of misogyny at Uber brings up the question of stubborn clusters of misogyny in our culture that cling to certain ideological groups. Why would libertarianism apparently attract so many women-haters? For that matter,  why are activist or “movement” atheists so often blatantly insensitive to women? You’d think that the New Atheists, dedicated to exposing the Evils of Religion, would bend over backward to show how non-patriarchal they can be. But, apparently not. Richard Dawkins in particular has revealed himself to be a real dick. And then there are gamers and online culture generally.

And yes, institutional paternalism is everywhere. But 50 years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, there are these new movements and/or institutions that are dedicated to challenging the status quo, in some way or another, and they’re as bad if not worse as some of the Old Guard as far as women are concerned. Why is that?

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John Oliver Wins the Internet

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Obama Administration

This is brilliant:

And here is the raw footage made available for future use in SCOTUS coverage.

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Because Scarey Things Scare Us

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Obama Administration

What’s really more likely to getcha, Ebola or the flu? Max Fisher has an article at Vox that simply points out some facts, such as the fact that the flu kills thousands of Americans every year. In 2004, a particularly bad year, 48,000 Americans died of the flu. We’ve had one death from Ebola and the nation is freaking out, but how many of those freaking out about Ebola have bothered to get a flu shot?

I got my flu shot a few days ago, by the way. Go thou and do likewise.

In fact, at the moment you are in greater danger of being crushed to death by your own furniture than of dying of Ebola. About 30 Americans die every year when a bookcase or other heavy furniture tips over on them, Fisher says. About 40,000 people suffer serious injuries from their own furniture every year. This is not to say Ebola should be ignored, but it shouldn’t be that hard to contain here even given the, um, quality of hospital management.

What about ISIS? “Presently, the threat to Americans outside of Iraq and Syria is extremely low,” Fisher writes, “as ISIS has no demonstrated intent or capability to launch such an attack. And since 2001, the US has gotten much, much better at preventing terror plots.”

However, the Right is obsessed with the idea that ISIS terrorists are in Mexico and trying to get across the border. Huh? Even PolitiFact, generously giving these claims many benefits of doubts, labeled this one “mostly false.” PolitiFact traced claims that “we know” ISIS is in Mexico, spouted by several Republican politicians, to the right-wing organization Judicial Watch. “Without knowing anything about Judicial Watch’s sources — such as rank or agency — it’s hard for us to assess the article’s credibility,” PolitiFact said. Indeed. It appears that all the “reports” of ISIS in Mexico are wingnuts quoting each other. There is no source.

Not only did independent experts consulted by PolitiFact say that it’s really unlikely ISIS is planning to cross the Mexican border, if they were planning to come to the U.S. they’d probably just take a plane.

“There is big difference between a theoretical risk or a risk that is worth worrying about,” said David Schanzer, director of Duke University’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

The general sentiment among experts was: It’s possible that ISIS could sneak through the border — illegal immigrants do it every day. But why would they?

Schanzer noted that ISIS members who have U.S. passports or visas could enter the country legally via plane. (The 9/11 hijackers had U.S. visas.) Whereas if they crossed the border illegally, they would run the risk of getting caught.

Things a lot more likely to kill you than Ebola and ISIS include (in ascending order) a thermonuclear World War III breaking out in the Balkans (unlikely but not impossible); climate change, guns, and traffic accidents. Heart disease and cancer tied for the number one spot. And if you are a reasonably well educated and well read person, I shouldn’t need to look up the data for you.

On the Right, it is not acceptable that we should not be terrified of Ebola or ISIS. One wingnut raged,

Shockingly, he finds global climate change to be a greater “threat” than ISIS or Ebola. Household furniture, televisions, and driving a car he deems to be more dangerous than ISIS or Ebola. 2nd Amendment rights are more dangerous than Ebola or ISIS. It is odd how he lumps Cancer and heart disease together.

It is abundantly clear that Max does not know the difference between a list of causes of death and an actual threat analysis.

Except the wingnut in question offered no argument or data to explain why we should be more afraid of Ebola and ISIS than of the flu and being killed in traffic. And, frankly, it seemed to me Fisher’s “threat analysis” was pretty good. He was not analyzing how dangerous a thing is in the abstract but how dangerous a thing is to someone within the United States. Of course an ISIS terrorist is very, very dangerous, but only to those in the vicinity of one. If you are in Peoria you really are more likely to be killed because some Second Amendment absolutist leaves a loaded gun unattended than by an ISIS terrorist in Syria somewhere. And flu will kill many more of us this year than are likely to die from Ebola. That’s just a plain fact. For that matter, more American men have accidentally shot themselves in the genitals than have died of Ebola. Seriously.

The Right gets furious at the rest of us because we’re not perpetually afraid of things. Righties have a proclivity of working themselves up into a frenzy of fear all the time, but they are only afraid of exotic things, not the everyday things that kill most of us. It fascinates me how their fear of undocumented Latinos, Islamist terrorists and Ebola have all congealed into One Big Boogeyman in their simple little brains, and they fear Ebola-infested terrorists crossing the border from Mexico, and they are all certain they heard some official source say this, although the actual source can never be found. Social psychologists, take note.

Back in 2007 I wrote a response to one of Little Lulu’s hissy fits about New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg not taking some ridiculous terror plot (to blow up JFK airport) seriously. Lulu’s position was that if one is not living in a constant state of terror, one is an ostrich. One is in denial of all the scarey things one must be afraid of. And I wrote that people can’t live their lives that way.  Not in New York City, anyway. I wrote,

I’ve got news for you, toots: People can’t live that way. And some of us, you know, live here. And if we choose to stay here, we must expose our precious flesh to the dangers of subways and tunnels and bridges and high-rise office buildings and Muslim taxi drivers every single damn day.

But just because we are not in a constant state of mind-numbing, inchoate fear, does not mean we are not mindful of what can happen. A whole lot of of watched the worst that terrorism can do with our own eyes. We were not sitting safely in our living rooms watching a little picture on a television. We were there. We lived with it. And we lived with the shrines and the smell and the sorrow for weeks after.

Believe me, you don’t forget something like that.

And the fact is, fear doesn’t make you safer. Not a bit. It doesn’t wrap you in a cloak of invincibility or put out death rays to kill your attackers. It does, however, interfere with rational thinking and cause you to make rash decisions. And constant stress increases the risk of heart disease, I’m told.

There’s your threat assessment, dude.

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The Christian Right’s Pitiful Rearguard Action

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Obama Administration

The cause du jour among some conservative Christians is maintaining their sacred entitlement to discriminate against people of unauthorized sexual orientation — LGBT — in public matters. And if they aren’t allowed to discriminate as they please, they honestly believe this amounts to discrimination against them.

Let us be clear, much hysterical rhetoric to the contrary, that no one is proposing churches must perform same-sex marriages or accept homosexual congregants. But in the public realm, in business and housing and employment, no one gets to discriminate against other citizens. Period.

As Eliel Cruz wrote,

You can’t victimize yourself in a situation you started in the first place. Christians, in general, have a hard time remembering that as we choose to oppress, due to our sincerely held religious beliefs, yet cry “discrimination” when we feel a push back. This is especially true when those people are queer. Within the Christian community, there are those who believe we are being discriminated against. However, no one is pushing legislation that excludes Christians from basic legal rights in the U.S. (such as job protection and marriage). Nor is anyone physically assaulting Christians due to their religious beliefs or advocacy. Christians are not facing actual tribulations, rather, the “discrimination” they cry comes from not being allowed to discriminate [against] others. It’s a double standard and they keep crying wolf. Or we, I should say, since, like many other LGBT people, I am also a Christian.

In this and many other “culture war” matters, the Christian Right wants to frame the issue as Christians versus non-Christians, but that isn’t accurate. It’s really cultural reactionaries, some of whom are Christian but some not, versus everybody else, including other Christians.

The most recent example of attempted religious overreach involves a fight over anti-LGBT discrimination laws in Houston. A new city ordinance bans anti-gay discrimination among businesses that serve the public, in private and public employment, in city contracting and in housing. The ordinance also exempted religious institutions from having to comply.

In spite of the exemption, several churches gathered signatures to get the ordinance recalled. They thought they had enough signatures to put the repeal on the November ballot, but the city attorney disqualified many of the signatures, so the petition drive fell short. Some of the Christians sued the city. The city attorney subpoenaed documents related to the signature gathering effort from five pastors not involved in the lawsuit but who were thought to be involved in the ballot petitions. Apparently the point of this was to find out what instructions the pastors had given people regarding how they would collect signatures.

According to several news stories the original subpoena mentioned sermons, although this has since been revised. Nevertheless the usual howlers on Fox News and elsewhere began to howl about the subpoenaing of sermons — leaving out the details, of course — and holding this up as an example of the abuse of innocent Christians at the hands of godless unbelievers. For example, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, got on Fox News and flat-out lied about the fact of the situation, falsely claiming that the city was trying to “dictate what pastors preach.” The commandment about “bearing false witness” seems often overlooked.

A theology professor from Georgia named Dr. Joel McDurmon, writing for a Christian “Biblical worldview ministry” website, pointed out that Christians cannot file lawsuits and expect to be treated differently from anyone else filing lawsuits.

The headlines read as if the city has made some move to start monitoring all pastors’ sermons, and this simply is not the case. It also gives the impression that this is some out-of-the-blue, general attack tactic by the activists upon the pulpit. It is not. It is not out-of-the-blue, it is not broad and general as far as the implicated pastors goes, and it should not be a surprise at all.

The City is not making a move to monitor sermons. The city is merely responding to a lawsuit against it and using standard powers of discovery in regard to a handful of pastors who are implicated as relevant to the lawsuit. The issue is here: once you file a lawsuit, you open up yourself and potentially your friends and acquaintances to discovery. This is the aspect that has not been reported, but it is an important part of the context.

A commenter to Dr. McDurmon wrote,

Thanks Dr for the very needed trusting-in-Christ reasonableness.

What I’m always mystified by, is one: how we evangelicals/christians think we can have (or demand) a laundry list of special privileges/exemptions etc, yet we are a minority who claim to follow a faith/religion that is so at odds (or should be) with the society we live in – yet we expect to carry on as before, unmolested in anyway whatsoever? That’s illogical. That’s never happened before in the history of humankind – yet we act as if it’s our right to be otherwise! If we have any understanding of church history or Scriptures we should know better…and be a lot more grateful about what we do have and less complaining about the few annoyances that come our way…

Second: How we think we can keep getting away with over-hyping and misrepresenting/mischaracterizing (and nearly lying sometimes – a la “death panels”) situations like this and not pay a price? When you cry wolf or in this case “persecution” over and over again; when in relative terms compared to real persecution; it is anything but persecution… Then how do we expect to be taken seriously, EVER!

I point this out to make it clear that some Christian conservatives get it, and understand that they actually have to recognize they live in a pluralistic society.

However, the other conservative Christians are thumping their chests and declaring they are doing God’s work by trying to stop civil rights protections for LGBT folks. But, y’know, they said exactly the same thing when the issue was race, not that many years ago. And they said the same thing when the issue was equal rights for women. What we’re looking at here isn’t so much a slippery slope as it is, in Freud’s words, a “pitiful rearguard action.”

In the past conservative Christian groups in the U.S. not only defended slavery, they also opposed such things as Catholicism, women’s suffrage and allowing women to have anesthesia during childbirth. This list is far from complete. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries American Christians were active on both sides of many social issues, including such matters as prohibiting child labor, and both sides claimed a mandate from the Bible for their position.  The progressives won many of the battles, but one could argue they lost the war. These days conservative Christians have managed to persuade much of the public — and much of news media — that they alone speak for Christianity.

But they don’t.

And there is no doubt in my mind that if people were allowed a dispensation to discriminate against whomever because of religious convictions, large parts of the country would revert to Jim Crow laws and male-only professions before the next “war on Christmas” season.

This isn’t just the Golden Rule; it’s acknowledging that we live in an enormously diverse country, and if everyone were given carte blanche to discriminate as he liked there would be chaos. And I have no doubt if conservative Christians ever get the discrimination permission slip they are demanding, new religions would suddenly appear whose core belief is that Christians are evil and must be discriminated against.

Is this a slippery slope argument? Consider that recently some groups identifying themselves as Satanists have demanding that if Christian symbols are displayed in public buildings, Satanic symbols must be displayed also. One suspects this effort is less about devotion to Satan than it is about pushing back against right-wing Christian tribal dominance in America.

Must Satanists be recognized as a religion? The government is loathe to get into the business of determining what is a religion and what isn’t, mostly because most religions look ridiculous to outsiders who aren’t used to them, and such determination would no doubt freeze out many legitimate minority religions. So, recently a few people have insisted on wearing pasta strainers on their heads for their official driver’s license photos, saying they are “Pastafarians” and followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and the government can’t say they aren’t. 

Can of worms, folks? Do we really want to have the government regulate and license what religion is supposed to be? I certainly don’t.

We have a reasonably clear, bright line that says government can’t go into churches and temples and determine who can be married and receive communion. But in the public sphere citizens don’t get to discriminate against other citizens. This is workable. It is the least government-intrusive solution to our problem of respecting both religious freedom and civil rights. No one is saying you can’t believe as you choose, but if your religious beliefs say you cannot do business with LGBT customers, don’t go into the wedding catering business.

Weirdly, the conservative Christians barred from exercising exclusive discrimination privileges complain that they are victims of government overreach.  They are too myopic to see that the same policies actually protect them from government overreach.

Ultimately, if you can’t handle life in a socially, religiously and culturally diverse nation, buy an island and live as you like. There is also an old and time-honored American tradition of allowing religious groups such as the Amish or Hasidic Jews  to build exclusive communities and more or less operate as laws unto themselves. But you can’t live among people who don’t believe as you do and carve out privileges for yourself that don’t apply to everyone else.

Why is this so difficult to understand?

Read more about religious/political conflict America in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World. Cross-posted at Rethinking Religion.

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