New York Is Better

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:


What Is It With Some Guys?

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?


John Oliver Wins the Internet

Obama Administration

This is brilliant:

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


Because Scarey Things Scare Us

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.


The Christian Right’s Pitiful Rearguard Action

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.


When Capitalism Kills

disasters, natural and unnatural, Obama Administration, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

Republicans blame President Obama for letting Ebola cross the border, because Presidents are supposed to be able to stop such things with their magical brain waves, apparently.  Others are calling for the head of the CDC to resign, or perhaps to commit ritual suicide. But the picture that is emerging just about everywhere but on Fox News is that Ebola spread to two nurses (so far) largely because of really bad hospital management.

Which takes us to our next installment of “When Capitalism Kills.” I’m not sure when the last one was, but I’m sure I’ve written on this general theme before.

The husband of an ER nurse at a Florida hospital formerly owned by Gov. Rick “ball fan envy” Scott  writes at TPM that his wife’s place of employment is run like most large companies/corporations in America. That is, the people at the top have no background or interest in how the products or services their companies provide actually happen. They are strictly money guys who have backgrounds in finance or something related but couldn’t manage production of their own products if you put a gun to their heads and threatened to shoot them if they don’t get that toothpaste into the tube.

Further, they have no respect for the expertise of the people who really are somehow making the products or services happen and would no more think to consult them about how to run the company better than they’d try to fly off the roof of corporate headquarters. Instead, if they decide something is amiss they hire outside consultants who will spend a few days having lunches with upper management and who will provide recommendations that, if implemented,  would make everything worse. Just about anyone who has ever worked in the trenches of production or engineering departments of large companies/corporations will tell you this.

If you are such a person, read this and tell me how familiar it sounds —

… it is obvious to those who work there that the combination of lax training and toxic labor relations ‘leaders’ like him have brought to the company are emblematic of a big problem for US hospitals if a major outbreak of ebola or other infectious disease occurs. My wife’s ER has an ‘ebola cart’ with some lightweight protective gear and written instructions for putting on a PPE, but the instructions are a loose bundle of papers and the pictures don’t match the gear in the cart and has inaccuracies that put them at serious risk. It’s an object of gallows humor for the staff. That’s the totality of their training or preparedness so far. As we all now know, PPEs are not easy to put on and take off correctly. Even though nurses all have experience with standard droplet control (they see TB and HIV all the time), ebola is a special case. They have gone months and months without a nurse education director because no one wants to deal with their management and take the position. Her coworkers are clear that they will refuse to treat an ebola patient because they have woefully inadequate training in the correct procedures and lack proper gear.

And yet the head of infectious disease at this hospital went on the local news to proclaim the hospital was ready to receive ebola patients safely. They obviously didn’t bother to speak to a single nurse on the front lines. I’m not particularly panic-y about ebola, even though obviously the family members of ER personnel have a lot at stake in ebola preparedness. But I think that this situation will be the weak link in any major national response. So many of our hospitals are run by lunatics like Rick Scott who seek only the highest profit margin. They do not invest in training, they build charting mechanisms that are good for billing but not treating patients, they constantly fight with their unionized employees, they lie to the public, etc, etc. We like to imagine that competent, highly-skilled medical institutions like Emory will save us, but we have way more Dallas Presbyterians in this country than we have Emorys. You can see exactly this managerial incompetence—and toxic labor relations—woven through the statement released by the nurses at Dallas Presbyterian today. Also see the head of National Nurses United on All In With Chris Hayes for a similar perspective.

To put it bluntly: we’ve entrusted our national medical system to the managerial competence and goodwill of the Rick Scotts of the world, and that is much scarier than a podium fan.

One of the nurses at the Texas hospital said that in the second week of the Ebola crisis at her hospital she was provided insufficient protective gear that left her neck exposed. Meanwhile the hospital was releasing statements to the press saying they were taking every precaution and going beyond CDC recommendations.

In other words, standard corporate bullshit.

Meanwhile, many politicians of both parties are babbling about hiring an “Ebola czar,” who no doubt would end up being the public sector equivalent of private sector consultants — some Very Important Person who will perform public “we’re doing something about this” theater.  And nothing any VIP does will ever trickle down  to the level of the people directly confronting Ebola in hospitals, working with inadequate direction and protection because management doesn’t know the difference between a virus and vichyssoise.

Because here in America, that’s how we roll.


When Women Don’t Count

criminal justice, Republican Party, Women's Issues

A couple of unrelated stories saying the same thing — first, following up yesterday’s post on how gun rights “trump” everything else these days, here’s a story from South Carolina about prosecutors who say “stand your ground” laws don’t apply to domestic violence situations.

In November 2012, Whitlee Jones fatally stabbed her partner, Eric Lee. She has testified that she did not mean to kill Lee when she issued the fatal wound, but that she only meant to fend him off while he blocked her from exiting the house with her belongings, attempting to leave him for good. The incident occurred just hours after Lee had punched Jones repeatedly and dragged her down the street by her hair.

People had witnessed Lee brutalizing Jones and called the police. Naturally, when the police showed up they talked only to Lee, who told them there was no problem. So the cops left. Brilliant. Shortly after the police left Jones tried to get out of the house, and she says he attacked her again, so she stabbed him. And he died, and now she is facing homicide charges.

And why doesn’t “stand your ground” apply to this situation?

But prosecutors say the 2006 SYG law does not apply to housemates in episodes of domestic violence, as that was not the legislation’s original purpose.

“[The Legislature’s] intent … was to provide law-abiding citizens greater protections from external threats in the form of intruders and attackers,” Assistant Solicitor Culver Kidd, the case’s lead prosecutor, told The Post and Courier. “We believe that applying the statute so that its reach into our homes and personal relationships is inconsistent with [its] wording and intent.”

So, in other words, stand your ground only applies if one is defending oneself from a stranger? On what planet does that make sense?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 1980 to 2008, among all homicide victims—

  • Females were more likely than males to be the victim of intimate killings (63.7%) and sex-related homicides (81.7%) .
  • Males were more likely to be involved in drug- (90.5%) and gang-related homicides (94.6%).
  • Female murder victims (41.5%) were almost 6 times more likely than male murder victims (7.1%) to have been killed by an intimate.
  • More than half (56.4%) of male murder victims were killed by an acquaintance; another quarter (25.5%) were murdered by a stranger.

Self-defense laws that apply only to defending oneself from strangers are, therefore, self-evidently screwy even for men, but more so for women.  This same document says men represent 77 percent of homicide victims and 90 percent of perpetrators, but given that male homicides tend to be drug and gang related, it’s not clear to me what the stats are regarding men not involved in gangs and drugs, and that’s something I’d be curious to know.

Even so, it seems to me a lot of white Americans are obsessed with unreasonable fear of the “other,” whether of brown Guatemalan toddlers sneaking across the Rio Grande or drug-crazed black people breaking into their homes and killing them. I actually couldn’t find authoritative data on how common it is for armed criminals of any color to break into homes while the occupants were inside. Burglaries are common, of course, but burglars prefer it if the homeowners are not home.

A lot of men also have a hard time accepting the fact that most rapes are not, in fact, perpetrated by strangers lurking in dark alleys but by men the victim knows.  Conservative men in particular will denounce rape in the abstract but defend it in the particular, especially when the accused seems like such a regular guy. And they nearly always seem like such regular guys.

But the point is that, if the prosecutors are right, then South Carolina’s “stand your ground” law was written to address threats that probably don’t actually happen that often to real law-abiding citizens, but it doesn’t apply to the ways people really are threatened, especially women.  Again, brilliant.

The other story showing that women are still a variation from the default norm in America comes from the sharp-eyed Josh Marshall.

For years there was a constant refrain in American politics which would speak of two electorates, even two elections: election results among white people and then the results when you counted the votes of black people. There were more denigrating and racist versions of this talk. But the most revealing were the versions that weren’t consciously racist at all. They were at their peak of popularity in the 80s and 90s and went something like this: “Democrats haven’t won the white vote in decades. Without blacks, they’d barely be holding on as a national party.”

There were various permutations of this refrain. But, as I’ve discussed before, all carried with them the tacit assumption that black votes, while legal, were somehow a second-rate product in the grand economy of voting.

We’ve come a long way, baby, or not —

I raise this history because we seem to be seeing a similar trend in attacks upon or diminishment of single women. Last week long-shot New Jersey Senate candidate Jeff Bell noted that he’d actually be ahead if not for single women. He then went on to blame his opponent’s double digit margin on single women and single mothers who vote Democratic because they are “wed” to the social safety net and “need benefits to survive.”

Josh goes on to quote other voices of the Right, including Rushbo, saying variations of the same thing. And of course the reason there is a gender gap is that there are women voters who, sensibly, vote according to their self-interests, whether for equal pay or reproduction rights or protection from domestic violence, and Democrats overwhelmingly support such things while Republicans overwhelmingly oppose them. And why might single mothers be more concerned about the social safety net, pray tell?

Every now and then I still run into men who actually cannot understand why gender and racial diversity is a good thing in a governing body. Why can’t a legislature or board of directors made up almost entirely by white men make perfectly sound and reasonable policies that apply to everybody?

Because so often they don’t, that’s why.


Wrong About Rights

Obama Administration

The concept of human rights is one of the most significant achievements of civilization. I believe I speak for liberals generally when I say that. But I also think the concept of “rights” generally has been considerably degraded.

Awhile back the the late Ronald Dworkin, who was a professor of philosophy at New York University, compared the exercise of individual rights to playing a trump card. “Individual rights are political trumps held by the individuals,” he said. “Individuals have rights when, for some reason, a collective goal is not a sufficient justification for denying them what they wish, as individuals, to have or to do, or not a sufficient justification for imposing some loss or injury upon them.”

The problem is that we seem to have assigned trump status to some rights even when a greater good would be served by denying them. And here’s an example.

Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist and gaming critic, pulled out of a speech she was going to give at the University of Utah. She had received threats of a “Montreal Massacre style attack” if her speech wasn’t canceled. The anonymous email continued, “feminists have ruined my life and I will have my revenge, for my sake and the sake of all the others they’ve wronged.”

The University and law enforcement decided the threat wasn’t serious enough to cancel the speech. Sarkeesian insisted on heavy security, including metal detectors at the doors.

But here’s the kicker: The University decided that people could carry a firearm into the auditorium as long as they had a permit for it. In other words, the right to carry trumped the safety of the speaker and the audience. Sarkeesian not unreasonably refused to give the speech.

Yesterday I ran into an argument over a right to health care. Naturally some guy trotted out his libertarian trump card, saying he had a right to not be obligated to pay for somebody else’s health care.

Where health care is concerned I am less interested in theories about rights than the practical matter that (a) getting more people insured really is controlling cost (b) providing access to health care is part of a reasonable national strategy for controlling infectious disease. In other words, somehow providing health care to most citizens is a positive for everybody. If we make it an argument about rights, however, we just have people slapping down their cards and arguing about which one trumps the other.

And a “right” to liberty doesn’t mean much if you are incapacitated with untreated medical problems.

Lately we’ve had some disagreements over the “right” of individuals to keep loaded assault weapons strapped to themselves everywhere they go. You’ll remember there was an episode in which restaurant staff and patrons hid in the cooler because they couldn’t tell if the men with guns were criminals or just gun nuts. In Georgia awhile back, a man waving a firearm around in a public park caused Little League parents to hide their children in a dugout while the parents stood guard and called the police. But the police didn’t arrest the guy, because he had a “right” to wave his gun around in a public park. Guns trump children.

Around the country the Fetus People are still pushing “personhood amendments” which amounts to assigning trump cards to fertilized eggs. In Alabama, a pregnant minor who can’t get permission for an abortion from her parents must go to court, where the fetus (but not the minor) may be represented by a court-appointed lawyer. A fetus trumps the minor child.

Our assignments of “trump” values increasingly is just about which interest groups are most persistently belligerent and whose lobbyists get the ears of politicians; any sense of “greater good” is left out of the conversation.


Teabaggery and Ebola

Republican Party

The first man to die of Ebola in the U.S., Thomas Duncan, was an African man with no health insurance. He was initially discharged by the hospital with an antibiotic prescription even though he had a fever of 103 degrees. The hospital knew that Duncan had just arrived from Africa, which should have been an alarm. Even so, someone with that much fever is very sick, and there was no diagnosis. He was just given antibiotics and sent home.  And one does wonder if a white man, or a person of any color with insurance, would have been at least kept for observation.

Even after Duncan had been diagnosed with Ebola Texas couldn’t get its act together.

It’s clear now that not just the hospital but state and local authorities responded inadequately to Duncan’s illness. His family and friends were quarantined, but left to fend for themselves; county public health officials didn’t even provide clean bedding. “The individuals, it’s up to them … to care for the household,” Erikka Neroes of Dallas County health and human services told the Guardian a week after Duncan had been admitted to the hospital. “Dallas County has not been involved in a disinfection process.”

When the disinfection process began, belatedly, there’s evidence that was botched as well. The Guardian found a team of contractors with no protective clothing simply power-washing the front porch, for instance, when it should have been scrubbed with bleach. A baby stroller sat nearby.

While the increasingly weird Grandpa John called for an Ebola czar, other people pointed to cuts in public health spending at the state and federal level that left us vulnerable. See Sarah Kliff, “The Stunning Cuts to America’s Budget to Fight Disease Outbreaks.” And then let’s go back to this:

The GOP approach to public health was crystallized at the 2012 debate where Rep. Ron Paul – another Texas politician — said it wasn’t the government’s responsibility to take care of a hypothetical young man who showed up in the emergency room very sick after he decided not to buy insurance. “That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risks,” Paul said, deriding “this whole idea that you have to prepare to take care of everybody …”

“Are you saying that society should just let him die?” moderator Wolf Blitzer asked. And the crowd roared “Yeah!” (For his part Paul answered no, but said hospitals should treat such cases as charity and not be compelled to do so.) Lest you think either Paul or that Florida audience represented a minority sentiment in the GOP, recall that none of his rivals, not even Mitt Romneycare, challenged Paul’s approach at the debate.

But now we know what happens when hospitals fail to adequately care for uninsured people who turn up in the ER: They can die, which is awful, but they may also spread disease and death to many other people. It’s pragmatism, not socialism, that commits governments to a public health agenda.

Republicans don’t do pragmatic. Republicans do tax cuts and then blame Democrats when the tax cuts have consequences.


Thinking About Separation of Church and State


I’m writing this in response to something posted in a Facebook group, which I started to write in Facebook, but it was turning into something major, so now it’s a blog post.

The original comment:

“I really just mean a state anti-religious or taking the separation between church and state to nitpicky extremes, obsessed with avoiding all prayers to God in general in the public square or the slightest mention of God in the public square. I have no problem with a President, for example, saying “God bless the United States of America”, or the pledge saying, “Under God”, or, “In God we trust” on our coins, or prayers at public meetings, as long as neutral and inclusive, and not mandatory for anyone.”

My response, addressed to the person who posted the comment:

Let’s take these apart. “The left” these days really is not concerning itself with “In God We Trust” on coins; possibly a few atheists are, but I haven’t heard anything about this lately.

When you are talking about the “public square” are you talking about official functions of some level of government — including public school functions — or activities initiated by private citizens and carried out on public property? This makes a huge difference.

Current U.S. statutory and case law protects the rights of individual citizens to do religious stuff on public property, such as hold prayer meetings in a public park. Local ordinances may require you to get a permit, but local officials cannot deny your group a permit just because it is religious, as long as it is allowing non-religious groups permits to use the park.

The same thing is true of public school property. Students may organize their own prayer groups and pray together on public school property before and after school and during recess. They may also organize Bible study clubs and use school facilities after school for their meetings, if the school is allowing other kinds of clubs, such as the Girl Scouts, to meet there. This is a matter of law, enacted by Congress in the Equal Access Law of 1984, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in Westside Community Schools v. Mergens (1990).

So it’s utter hyperbole to say that religion is being totally banned from the “public square.” What’s prohibited, mostly, is religious expression that is initiated or sponsored by government itself.

The reason parents — and they weren’t just atheist parents — challenged school prayers is that some schools were forcing children to say prayers that violated their religious beliefs. For example, one of the landmark SCOTUS cases that prohibited school prayer, Engel v. Vitale (1962), was brought by Jewish families whose children were being coerced into saying prayers to Jesus in public school. There were a number of other cases back then in which children were being punished in subtle ways — being forced to hide in the cloakroom or sit in the library doing long division — if they refused to take part in religious activities in school.

The more recent Texas football case, Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe (2000), was initiated by Catholic and Mormon families who not only objected to the content of the prayers being said over the loudspeakers before football games, they also testified that many teachers had treated their children with hostility because they hadn’t been “born again” and in some cases had ridiculed them in front of other students because of their religion. School officials seriously needed to be reminded they weren’t living in the United States of Fundamentalist Jesus.

However, by law, people who really want to pray to Fundamentalist Jesus before high school football games can still do so if they organize their own prayer circles before the game, and they can do this on school property. It just can’t be part of the official program that everyone has to sit through.

One of my favorite “enlightenment” examples on this issue was an article in World Net Daily by a guy who couldn’t understand the big deal about prayers at football games until his company temporarily transferred him to Hawaii. He was invited to a high school football game and asked to stand up for the pregame prayer, which he did. Then he realized to his horror that he was standing up for a Buddhist prayer.

We were frozen in shock and incredulity! What to do? To continue to stand and observe this prayer would represent a betrayal of our own faith and imply the honoring of a pagan deity that was anathema to our beliefs. To sit would be an act of extreme rudeness and disrespect in the eyes of our Japanese hosts and neighbors, who value above all other things deference and respect in their social interactions. I am sorry to say that in the confusion of the moment we chose the easier path and elected to continue to stand in silence so as not to create a scene or ill will among those who were seated nearby.

Wow, that was big of him.

Anyway, over the next few days the writer found out that, because this ethnic Japanese community was predominantly Buddhist and Shinto, the pre-game prayers were also either Buddhist or Shinto. He stayed away from Hawaiian high school football games because he couldn’t handle the prayers. He concluded,

The point is this. I am a professional, educated and responsible man who is strong in his faith and is quite comfortable debating the social and political issues of the day. Yet when placed in a setting where the majority culture proved hostile to my faith and beliefs, I became paralyzed with indecision and could not act decisively to defend and proclaim my own beliefs. I felt instantly ostracized and viewed myself as a foreigner in my own land.

Yes, and it’s apparently incomprehensible for a lot of people of the majority faith, Christianity, to imagine what it feels like to be in the minority until it happens to them. I wish I could send the whole Bible Belt to Buddhist/Shinto public observances so they can appreciate what it feels like.

The point here is that courts have interpreted the free exercise of religion to be a basic right of citizenship enshrined in the First Amendment but protected by the 14th Amendment, the first paragraph of which is —

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Prayers and other religious observances that are initiated and conducted by “officials” of government, whether school teachers or senators, and are part of the official program of some kind of government function, are an infringement of the free exercise of religion of any citizen who is not of the faith represented in the prayer. And there is no such thing as a “nonsectarian prayer,” especially if there are any atheists or nontheists (like me) in the audience.

Earlier this year in Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014) SCOTUS ruled to allow sectarian prayer before government meetings. Such prayers had never been prohibited as long as they didn’t amount of obvious proselytization, although there was some grumbling Justice Scalia’s written opinion opened that door. Conservative Christian groups celebrated their “freedom to pray,” as if they’d actually been prohibited from praying before. Now some groups are fighting back by insisting that the prayers include pagan or other minority prayers, and I don’t see how even Justice Scalia — famous for his creative interpretations of the Constitution — could come up with an argument that such prayers must only be Christian. Although I wouldn’t put it past him to try.

I haven’t personally said the Pledge of Allegiance for decades. I originally stopped saying it because I was angry about the War in Vietnam, but then I realized the “under God” part was wrong, and citizens should be required to say that. It’s an infringement on freedom of religion. I’m not on any big crusade to outlaw the thing, but I do encourage people who are uncomfortable with it to just not say it. Maybe someday if enough people are just not saying it, the thing will be re-thought.

The point is that something that may not seem like a big deal to you might be a big deal to the guy standing next to you, and he has rights, too. Your “nitpicky extreme” might feel like a serious infringement to somebody else.

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