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Friday, December 19, 2014

On leaving the Republican Party

Yesterday, I officially left the Republican Party.  It is a move that I made temporarily once before but reversed for various reasons.  This time, the arrangement is pretty much permanent.  There are a lot of reasons behind my move, most of which I have talked about over the years.  My one concern is that I am now unable to vote in anything except for non-partisan elections in the primaries, but I have weighed that against the fact that the Republican Party has been captured by the far-right wackos such as Ted Cruz, Michelle Bachmann, and Sarah Palin and decided that giving up that privilege is worth getting rid of the crises of conscience I have been having.

For a long time now, I have been watching with alarm as the Republican Party has slipped further and further to the right expelling anyone who is remotely moderate in interested in actually governing (as opposed to the reactionary confrontationarianism that has gripped the party as of late) along the way.  Along the way, the party has become incredibly intolerant of any deviation from the strict conservative norms that the Tea Party espouses.  I've talked about this here.  As of this time people from the party have used religion as a pretext for discrimination (state RFRAs), have denied science in favor of ideology (climate change), denied people basic human rights (Guantanamo Bay and the use of torture), denied that some people are worthy of being treated like humans (denunciations of LGBTQIA people), twisted the truth in the most asinine ways (Birthers, the supposed "amnesty", and more), and so much more.  With all of this going on, I cannot remain in the party and be at peace with my conscience.

I will say that a part of the reason for the split is that I have liberalized to a certain degree, but if the GOP had remained ideologically located where it was just a few years ago, I would have been able to remain in the party.  But the Tea Party (mainly) has driven the GOP off of a cliff and alienated a large number of more moderate voters, myself among them.  Why should I remain with a party which looks at me as a second-class citizen and a deviant who is better off dead or in hell?  Why should I stay with a party that is more interested in scoring points with a fringe that wants to rewrite history and dismantle any government help for the poor and needy among us?  Why should I remain with a party that allows a group which wants unrestricted access to any and all guns regardless and looks at *ANY* restrictions on gun ownership (even sensible ones) as tantamount to fascism and dictatorship?  Why should I remain with a party that goes into hysterics and disagrees with anything that the President agrees with?  This is not a party that I can be a part of.

I do want to stress that I am not saying that every individual Republican is a bad person.  I am condemning the party, not every individual in the party.  I know that there are people who remain in the party hoping to reform it and I sincerely hope they are successful because I would love to be a part of the party I grew up in and joined as soon as I could.  I also know that I may piss off some people with what I am saying here, and I am fine with that.  Just know that this is something I have thought deeply about for a few years now, so this was not a sudden decision.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Some thoughts about the events in Ferguson

Up until now, I have resisted the urge to write about the events in Ferguson because I have not really had anything to add to the conversation.  Depressingly, this story has become far too common to add much too.  Sadly, the reaction from people is also entirely predictable, which is another reason that I have stayed out of this.

That being said, I did see a couple of things that I wanted to comment on.

First, I *AM NOT* going to comment on the case itself.  I do not know all of the facts and am not in any position to judge what happened, which frankly is also true for most people out there.  Unless you saw what happened or heard the evidence, you only have a partial story (at best) to go on, which makes for bad decision making.  Sorry, but it's true.

Second, this case (like the Trayvon Martin case) has become about so much more that just Michael Brown.  To people who seem to be thinking that this is all about Michael Brown, you need to pull your heads out of whatever areas they are stuck in and realize that this is so much bigger than that.  Sadly, our country has a long and inglorious history of discrimination against non-WASPs in general, and non-whites in particular.  All of the frustration from that keeps boiling over.  Then there is also the way that Republicans have unleashed what can only be described as racism on President Obama.  They can talk about being opposed to what he does on principle, but it happens so frequently and with such vehemence that there must be other factors involved.  When a barrier is finally breached and the person who breaches it is relentlessly savaged for actions that have been fairly typical in the past, principle is rather obviously not the driving force behind it.  'Nuff said.

The first thing I wanted to comment on is an opinion piece I saw on CNN.com.  In this piece, the author rips into the prosecutor.  While I agree that as a matter of appearance (if nothing else), the prosecutor should have recused himself, I think that the rest of the piece is a series of attacks that would have been launched no matter what happened.  Basically the author says that the grand jury should not have heard all of the evidence and that the prosecutor should have recommended charges.  Had the prosecutor gone through the process as normal in a few days, I would guarantee you that people would have yelled that the process was not given enough weight.  Very similar issue with the recommending charges.  In either case, the prosecutor was stuck in the middle of a situation where there was no good answer, so he made the decision to let the grand jury decide.  And yes, I know there are people who are going to assume that he exercised some sort of nefarious influence on the grand jury, but without proof, that is merely huffing and puffing.

The second thing is the reaction to the announcement.  While I get why it happened, it was horribly bad.  First off, rioting and looting merely plays into a racist narrative that African-Americans are animalistic and not capable of controlling themselves.  After all, why can't they just protest peacefully the way whites do?  Sadly, that is the way a lot of people look at incidents like this.  While most people will not come out and say it, you can hear it right beneath whatever else it is they are saying.  In any time of social upheaval (which we are in now), people who are comfortable with the norm will do whatever they can to maintain the status quo against those who are trying to change it.  After all, people are more comfortable with what is familiar than what is new or different.  Since President Obama has been elected, racism which had been pretty well pushed out to the fringes has come to occupy center stage in the Republican party in general and the Tea Party in particular.

What can we do about all this?  First off, people need to learn another way to channel their anger.  Rather than playing into the racist stereotype of the angry black, people need to figure out a peaceful way to make change.  I know it is not going to be easy but that is the only way to solve this short of a revolution or massive display of violence.  Vote at the ballot box every election, hold *PEACEFUL* protests and demonstrations, or something else like that.  Maybe I have too much faith in the ability of the system to change, but I don't really see another option that will resolve things without any more bloodshed.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The impact of social media on the news

I don't know if you watch The Newsroom on HBO, because if you don't, you really should.  It is a great show that (admittedly) romanticizes the mainstream news media.  Unfortunately, the show is entering its final season.  Last night was the season premiere and I thought it raised some really good points.  I was debating about putting this here or on my TV blog.  I decided for here because the points I want to make go beyond what the show says, so here it is.

Last nights episode focused on the Boston Marathon bombing and on the impact of social media on the investigation.  While I know there are a lot of people who love the fact that the "average" citizen can now directly connect with other people and share "news" with everyone, I do not like it.  My reasons aren't that I only trust the mainstream news media, but rather that there are certain procedural safeguards in place in professional media outfits that are not in place on social media.  Anyone on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, etc. can post things and there is no solid way to make sure that the information is accurate before it is posted.  As I've experienced firsthand, this is definitely a problem.

When I was working as an election judge during early voting, we had a few people come in saying that they had heard that there were various unspecified problems with the voting machines.  When asked where they had heard this, they cited Facebook or other social media sites.  The thing is that none of our machines were actually malfunctioning or anything.  But we had these people coming in based on unsubstantiated rumors and almost yelling at election judges.  And therein lies my issue with this type of "journalism".

How many times have there been rumors of celebrity deaths?  How many times have people mindlessly passed things along simply because they heard it and so it must be true?  Sadly, it happens all too often and from this spring all sorts of issues.  Once something gets around the internet, it is deemed to be true and is all to hard to undo.  People can be smeared and ruined on nothing more than innuendo and slanderous accusations.

And The Newsroom showed that vividly last night.  People on Reddit or other sites sent around information claiming to have identified the bombing perpetrators.  Subsequently, one of the "suspect's" family was threatened with violence, rape, and death threats.  This was all despite the fact that the authorities publicly stated that that the men identified in the images were not actually suspects.

Please note that I am not saying that all citizen journalism is bad, but on the whole, I find it to be more harmful than helpful.  Most people don't bother trying to take the time to sort out good information from bad information, so they just pass it all along.  The longer it is passed around, the more likely it is to be accepted as truth.  After all, someone somewhere must have checked it out before it was passed along, right?

I also realize that the mainstream media is far from perfect.  All too often, they miss stories or get information wrong.  A certain amount of that comes from the fact that they can be so focused on ratings that they make a move too quickly (witness Florida during the 2000 election) or the fact that a lot of what people call "news" is actually more entertainment (witness the proliferation of stories about celebrities and their antics) or even tabloid journalism.

Ideally, I'd like to see corporations removed from the news entirely, but I am not sure if that can happen and the newspapers still run and serve as many people as they do.  Barring that, I think that there needs to be a firewall of some sort between the media and the corporation that owns it so that the media can truly be as independent as possible.

As for citizen "journalists", I don't know if there is a way to fix it.  There really is no way to stop that sort of "news" from spreading short of putting some sort of filter on social media and that would cause more problems than it would fix.  What we, as citizens, can do is to make sure that we check out stories before we pass them along.  It won't necessarily stop things from spreading, but it may help to slow down the spread which would put something of a damper on rumors and other issues.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A reply to my last post....

You may remember from my last post that I was struggling with how to justify my opposition to abortion in a non-religious manner.  I have to express my immense gratitude to my sister (who studying to be a midwife and has studied philosophy and ethics) who took the time one weekend when I was visiting to spend over an hour talking me through a purely philosophical, definitional, and medical reasons to oppose abortion.  It has been almost a month since I talked with her (I so should have written this sooner!), but I wanted to summarize what she told me.  Any mistakes here are purely ones with my memory since she explained it to me with a great deal of clarity and charity.

To start, we need to define the word "life".  Since "murder" is the taking of a life, then if abortion is murder, the baby must be alive.  Previously, I had only ever heard opposition to abortion based in the realm of ensoulment.  But, as I said before, this is nothing that can be proven in any sort of logical or objective manner and is therefore something that must be taken on faith.  However, if we can define life in an objective and measurable manner, then we will have something that can be used in a more scientific manner.

So, what makes something alive?  Well, first off the object being talked about must have an identity of its own.  Note that this does not exclude symbiotic organisms or parasites.  While a symbiotic organism or parasite relies on it host to remain alive, it is separate from the host.  Also, please note that a parasite is not necessarily bad despite the negative connotations that have come to be associated with the word.  A fetus fits this description.  The mother's body creates a sac to keep the fetus safe from the body that might otherwise attack it as a foreign organism, which would mean that the fetus is separate from the mother's body.  Couple this with the fact that if you were to check the DNA, which is a combination of the mother and father’s DNA, the baby is undoubtedly something distinct from the mother.

Secondly, something that is alive must maintain homeostasis, which is defined as

                                 the tendency of a system, especially the physiological system
                                 of higher animals, to maintain internal stability, owing to the
                                 coordinated response of its parts to any situation or stimulus
                                 that would tend to disturb its normal condition or function.
                                 (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/homeostasis)

So the question is whether or not the fetus can maintain its own internal equilibrium.  The body of the fetus does maintain itself in a state of equilibrium within its environment inside of the mother, so yes, it fulfills this qualification as well.

Third, something that is alive must be able to grow in a manner that is not simply adding outside things onto itself.  For example, if I were to build a structure and then add onto it, that does not make the structure alive because it is being added onto, not growing.  A fetus, on the other hand, has to grow through the process of mitosis which the process through which life grows.  Hence, the fetus fulfills this part of life as well.

Fourth, something that is alive must be able to produce energy through the metabolization of chemicals and energy.  The fetus does this through the placenta and umbilical cord.  So, this part of the definition of life is fulfilled as well.

There is more, but these are the main ones.  Because each of these properties, which are integral to the definition of life, we can safely say that the fetus is alive and that abortion is murder since murder is the deliberate taking of a life.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The post I never thought I'd write....

I never thought I'd write a post like this.  But I have been examining my political beliefs recently mainly because I am trying to achieve a certain level of consistency.  It occurred to me when I was looking at things that my reasons for opposing abortion are entirely religious which flies in the face of my very firm belief that while religion should impact your political beliefs, they should not be the sole reason for them.  Witness my rejection of purely religious arguments against same-sex marriage for an example.

To put it simply, I am adamantly and unreservedly against abortion because I believe that babies are ensouled from the moment of conception and that to abort a baby is to murder that baby.  However, there is no scientific way (that I know of) to prove (or disprove) this and therefore it falls squarely into the religious category which is not a valid reason to oppose something politically given the separation of church and state.  While I will never support abortion, I am struggling with how to resolve this.  I know there are sites that I can look at, but most of them are fairly right wing and I have discovered in the same-sex marriage debate that, all too often, they twist and distort facts to their viewpoint which makes me leery of trusting them.  I cannot keep this political belief if I cannot figure out some way to justify it in a non-religious manner.

The other issue I am struggling with is the death penalty.  As I have written about repeatedly (see here or here for a couple of examples), the death penalty is not wrong per se.  My concern about it stems from the fact that the death penalty seems to be applied in an uneven and ill-considered manner, especially after the botched executions in Arizona and Oklahoma as well as the events in Ferguson, Missouri.  I firmly believe that the death penalty is warranted in certain cases where the crime is particularly heinous.  However, because it is final in a way that no other punishment is, the guilt of the person *MUST* be proven beyond any shadow of doubt.  Also, the execution must be done in the most humane manner possible because even if they are being executed, they are still humans and as such deserve the dignity of humans.  I am rapidly coming to the point where I can no longer support the death penalty without some major overhauls to ensure that it is being used properly.

If anyone has any thoughts or information that may be helpful for me, please let me know!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

On the Hobby Lobby Decision

To say I am dismayed at the decision by the Supreme Court yesterday regarding the "religious freedom" of for profit corporations is putting it mildly, as you can probably guess from my previous post regarding about this case.  I will say that the decision is not as bad as it could have been, but it is still potentially disastrous.

In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Alito joined by Justices Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas with a concurring opinion by Justice Kennedy, a dissenting opinion by Justice Ginsburg joined by Justice Sotomayer in toto and joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan in all but Part III-C-1.  Justices Breyer and Kagan also issued a brief 1 paragraph dissent explaining why they did not join in Part III-C-1 of Justice Ginsburg's dissent.

Justice Alito said that while the government had a compelling interest regarding the contraceptive mandate, the government failed to prove that it was using the least restrictive means to provide for the compelling interest which is a requirement of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) (discussed briefly here).  He also stated that

                                 [t]he principal dissent raises the possibility that discrimination
                                 in hiring...might be cloaked as religious practice to escape legal
                                 sanction...Our decision today provides no such shield.  The
                                 Government has a compelling interest in providing an equal
                                 opportunity to participate in the workplace without regard to race,
                                 and prohibitions on racial discrimination are precisely tailored
                                 to achieve that critical goal. (p. 46)

This statement is important (hopefully) for reasons that I will discuss later.

I won't bother with Justice Kennedy's concurrence, which is only 4 pages long and easily read, so let's turn to Justice Ginsburg's dissent.  Justice Ginsburg notes that the Court's decision expands the usage of the RFRA to an alarming degree.  The RFRA was meant to prevent "laws that substantially burden a person's free exercise of their religion." (Wikipedia.com)  She argues that a for-profit corporation cannot assert a claim for rights that "significantly impinge on the interests of third parties." (dissent, p. 7)  She also discusses how the law differentiates between a for-profit corporation and a religious organization.  She finishes by asking exactly how far the court's decision reaches.

Justices Breyer and Kagan's dissent is one paragraph and can be easily read on its own.  The decision can be seen here.

Before I can get to my opinion about the Court's decision, I think that some definitions and explanations are needed.

Let's start with business types.  For more information, look here.  When someone starts a business, they need to decide how it will be set up because how it is set up will affect its legal status, liability, and other issues.  For example, if someone sets up a sole proprietorship, then the business is legally indistinguishable from its owner, which means that the owner is personally liable for actions of the company.  If a partnership is setup, then the partners are liable, although the extent here differs depending on what type of partnership is established.  For our purposes, if a corporation is set up, then the corporation is a completely separate legal entity from the owner(s) and the owner(s) are not liable for actions against the company (unless the owner is the one who did said action).  This is why it is correct to say that a corporation is a person.  It is a legal fiction, but an important one, particularly for this case.

Because a corporation is a separate entity from the people who own/run it, there are (properly speaking) no religious liberty issues at stake here.  Since the corporation, and not the owners, is paying for the insurance the owners' religious liberty is not being infringed whatsoever.  To say otherwise is to warp the law in a very untenable way.  If the owners of a corporation are to be the same as the corporation itself for this purpose, then why are they different in terms of liability in a lawsuit?

This leads us to the difference between a religious corporation (generally non-profit); a non-religious, non-profit corporation; and a for profit corporation.  A religious corporation is setup with the explicit purpose of advancing a particular religion.  This is why they have (properly) been given waivers from the contraception mandate.  If their religion forbids the use of contraceptives, whether in general or of particular types, then it would be a violation of their central mission.  If you work for one of these religious corporations, you should know that they don't cover contraception and therefore, you'll have to use the alternative method already set in place by the HHS.

This element is not present in a non-religious corporation (whether for-profit or non-profit).  These corporations are set up with the purpose of providing a specific service or set of goods.  For example, I am employed by a non-profit organization which represents physicians and non-physicians who work in the field of addiction medicine.  Hobby Lobby was setup in order to sell goods to the public.  In both cases, the central character of the organization is explicitly non-religious.  I will grant that Hobby Lobby does follow certain Christian principles (closing on Sundays for example) but this does not make it a religious corporation or bestow religious benefits on it.

Throughout the Court's opinion, Justice Alito makes consistent references to the owners' religious beliefs.  However, as can be seen from above, their beliefs are completely irrelevant to this case since the owners are not paying for the contraception directly.  The fact that the opinion completely ignored this is baffling unless it is assumed that ignoring this was purposeful.  If it was purposeful, then this opinion is a blatant twisting of the law and thus should be condemned.  If it was accidental, then Justice Alito is guilty of shoddy work.  Either way, I cannot regard this opinion as a worthy one, but rather as a case of judicial activism and not an application of the appropriate laws.

The other major problem with the law is that opens the door to a host of challenges to other laws based on religious beliefs.  Justice Ginsberg said this very nicely, so I am going to quote her at length:

                             Why should decisions of this order be made by Congress
                             or the regulatory authority, and not this Court? Hobby
                             Lobby and Conestoga surely do not stand alone as
                             commercial enterprises seeking exemptions from generally
                             applicable laws on the basis of their religious beliefs. See,
                             e.g., Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 256 F. Supp.
                             941, 945 (SC 1966) (owner of restaurant chain refused to
                             serve black patrons based on his religious beliefs opposing
                             racial integration), aff ’d in relevant part and rev’d in part on
                             other grounds, 377 F. 2d 433 (CA4 1967), aff ’d and modified
                             on other grounds, 390 U. S. 400 (1968); In re Minnesota ex
                             rel. McClure, 370 N. W. 2d 844, 847 (Minn.1985) (born-again
                             Christians who owned closely held, forprofit health clubs
                             believed that the Bible proscribed hiring or retaining an
                             “individua[l] living with but not married to a person of the
                             opposite sex,” “a young, single woman working without her
                             father’s consent or a married woman working without her
                             husband’s consent,” and any person “antagonistic to the Bible,”
                             including “fornicators and homosexuals” (internal quotation
                             marks omitted)), appeal dismissed, 478 U. S. 1015 (1986);
                             Elane Photography, LLC v. Willock, 2013–NMSC–040, ___
                             N. M. ___, 309 P. 3d 53 (for-profit photography business owned
                             by a husband and wife refused to photograph a lesbian couple’s
                             commitment ceremony based on the religious beliefs of the
                             company’s owners), cert. denied, 572 U. S. ___ (2014). Would
                             RFRA require exemptions in cases of this ilk? And if not, how
                             does the Court divine which religious beliefs are worthy of
                             accommodation, and which are not? Isn’t the Court disarmed
                             from making such a judgment given its recognition that “courts
                             must not presume to determine . . . the plausibility of a religious
                             claim”? Ante, at 37.
                             Would the exemption the Court holds RFRA demands for
                             employers with religiously grounded objections to the use of
                             certain contraceptives extend to employers with religiously
                             grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses);
                             antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs,
                             including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with
                             gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations
                             (Christian Scientists, among others)?31 According to counsel for
                             Hobby Lobby, “each one of these cases . . . would have to be
                             evaluated on its own . . . apply[ing] the compelling interest-least
                             restrictive alternative test.” Tr. of Oral Arg. 6. Not much help there
                             for the lower courts bound by today’s decision.

                             The Court, however, sees nothing to worry about. Today’s cases,
                             the Court concludes, are “concerned solely with the contraceptive
                             mandate. Our decision should not be understood to hold that an
                             insurance-coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts
                             with an employer’s religious beliefs. Other coverage requirements,
                             such as immunizations, may be supported by different interests (for
                             example, the need to combat the spread of infectious diseases) and
                             may involve different arguments about the least restrictive means
                             of providing them.” Ante, at 46. But the Court has assumed, for
                             RFRA purposes, that the interest in women’s health and well being
                             is compelling and has come up with no means adequate to serve that
                             interest, the one motivating Congress to adopt the Women’s Health
                             Amendment.

                             There is an overriding interest, I believe, in keeping the courts “out
                             of the business of evaluating the relative merits of differing religious
                             claims,” Lee, 455 U. S., at 263, n. 2 (Stevens, J., concurring in
                             judgment), or the sincerity with which an asserted religious belief is
                             held. Indeed, approving some religious claims while deeming others
                             unworthy of accommodation could be “perceived as favoring one
                             religion over another,” the very “risk the Establishment Clause was
                             designed to preclude.” Ibid. The Court, I fear, has ventured into a
                             minefield, cf. Spencer v. World Vision, Inc., 633 F. 3d 723, 730 (CA9
                             2010) (O’Scannlain, J., concurring), by its immoderate reading of
                             RFRA. I would confine religious exemptions under that Act to
                             organizations formed “for a religious purpose,” “engage[d] primarily
                             in carrying out that religious purpose,” and not “engaged. . .
                             substantially in the exchange of goods or services for money beyond
                             nominal amounts.” See id., at 748 (Kleinfeld, J., concurring).
As I noted above, the opinion of the Court does say that it is only meant to apply to closely held corporations and only to the contraceptive mandate, but I really don't see that working.  If you think I am exaggerating, please look at this page where conservative activists are looking to use this ruling to roll back rights for the LGBT community.  I hope that the lower courts follow what Justice Alito says, but I fear that they won't.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

On "religious freedom" for businesses as it relates to the LGBT Community

In a column on my newest blog, I ended with a brief discussion about some thoughts I had about religious freedom and businesses in regards to discrimination against members of the LGBT community (also discussed here).  What I missed when I was writing the post was that there is a case from the Supreme Court which is pretty much on point, so I wanted to discuss that briefly.

The case is Employment Division v. Smith (1990) and the decision was written (ironically enough) by Justice Scalia (joined by Justices Rehnquist, White, Stevens, and Kennedy) with a concurring opinion written by Justice O'Connor (joined in part by Justices Blackmun, Brennan, and Marshall) and a dissenting opinion written by Justice Blackmun (joined by Justices Brennan and Marshall).  The majority opinion said "[w]e have never held that an individual's religious beliefs [494 U.S. 872, 879] excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate."  To quote a portion of the decision:

                       It is a permissible reading of the [free exercise clause]...to say that
                       if prohibiting the exercise of religion is not the object of the [law]
                       but merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and
                       otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been
                       offended....To make an individual's obligation to obey such a law
                       contingent upon the law's coincidence with his religious beliefs,
                       except where the State's interest is "compelling" - permitting him, by
                       virtue of his beliefs, "to become a law unto himself," contradicts both
                       constitutional tradition and common sense. To adopt a true
                       "compelling interest" requirement for laws that affect religious
                       practice would lead towards anarchy.

The Court also said

                       The "compelling government interest" requirement seems benign,
                       because it is familiar from other fields. But using it as the standard
                       that must be met before the government may accord different
                       treatment on the basis of race, see, e.g., Palmore v. Sidoti, or before
                       the government may regulate the content of speech, see, e.g., Sable
                       Communications of California v. FCC, is not remotely comparable
                       to using it for the purpose asserted here. What it produces in those
                       other fields -- equality of treatment, and an unrestricted flow of
                       contending speech -- are constitutional norms; what it would
                       produce here -- a private right to ignore generally applicable
                       laws -- is a constitutional anomaly.

                       …The rule respondents favor would open the prospect of
                       constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations
                       of almost every conceivable kind -- ranging from compulsory military
                       service to the payment of taxes to health and safety regulation such as
                       manslaughter and child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug
                       laws, and traffic laws; to social welfare legislation such as minimum
                       wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental
                       protection laws, and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the
                       races. [emphasis added- MV]

Put all of this together and I think the result is pretty clear.  If there is a universally applicable law in place whose purpose is permissible, then a person may not disobey the law because of religious convictions.  That would seem to make the decision rather easy.  However, there is a slight wrinkle.  In response to this case and others, Congress and some states passed Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, which "[m]andates courts use the following when considering religious liberty cases:

1.Strict scrutiny

2.Religious liberty can only be limited for a compelling government interest

3.If religious liberty is to be limited, it must be done in the least restrictive manner possible" (Courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_Religious_Freedom_Restoration_Acts)

In these cases, the discrimination may or may not be legal depending on how the state courts rule.

All things considered, I find this to be very interesting.  Thoughts?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

On the Petition Against the Fairness for All Marylanders Act

A couple of weeks ago, I received a letter and petition to sign which wanted to put the Fairness for All Marylanders Act (MD SB 212).  I am including links to the text of the letter as well as the text of the law and a summary of the law in this post.

Cover Letter= https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B24Zal0YMEMebWxNeFZPZG5OWWc/edit?usp=sharing
Law Page 1= https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B24Zal0YMEMeWHI1VUJ0NzllV2M/edit?usp=sharing
Law Page 2= https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B24Zal0YMEMecVE4ZU1tSXZVTTQ/edit?usp=sharing
Law Summary= https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B24Zal0YMEMeMlRjdlc5UlVxTE0/edit?usp=sharing

All of these documents came directly from the group organizing the petition and were in the envelope that I received.

The first thing I want to note is that the letter is chock full of lies and half truths.  The first one is what they call the bill "Maryland's Bathroom Bill." By focusing on one point of impact, they are trying to scare and confuse people.  The letter is focusing mostly on the issue of what bathroom a transgender person can use and ignores the many other things that this bill allows.  Second, the letter says that people will be able to use whatever bathroom they want "based on what sex they happen to feel they at the moment."  This is an outright lie not just spin the way the first one was.  The bill says

                        "Gender Identity" means the gender-related identity appearance,
                        expression, or behavior of a person, regardless of the person's
                        assigned sex at birth, which may be demonstrated by: (1) consistent
                        and uniform assertion of a person's gender identity; or (2) any other
                        evidence that the gender identity is sincerely held as part of the
                        person's core identity.

In other words, the bill is not about transient feelings or whims, but about a person's identity as a person.  Also, the letter confuses "sex" and "gender" which are in fact completely separate concepts.  Sex is biologically based.  Men and women have rather obvious physical differences that separate them.  Gender, on the other hand, is a societal construct based on what different societies perceive as "masculine" or "feminine".  There is nothing natural about gender.  Different societies have different roles for men or women based on the specific circumstances that they discovered themselves in.

A large part of the problem is that Americans (mainly, but not only conservative ones) are under the delusion that the Judeo-Christian beliefs that are predominant in America are in fact the natural order of things and that everyone else needs to follow what we think.  This is very much a modern day version of the "white man's burden" that was so predominant at the turn of the 20th century.  As a result, since so many Americans consider gender and sex to be interchangeable, that is the way it must be.  This is complete and utter bullshit for the reasons detailed above.  The scare tactics that the group trying to get the petitions signed are using are pathetic.  If you have to resort to tactics like these, then your case is incredibly weak.

I have no problem with spin because everyone does it all of the time.  Spin means saying things in such a way so as to present yourself or your case in the best light possible or to present something you oppose in a bad light.  I don't like it all the time, particularly in what should be something scholarly, but bald faced lying is beyond the pale.  If you want people to support or oppose something, you need to present the truth, even if it is spun a little.  I will admit to preferring unspun truth, but spun truth is still partial truth which is good enough for me.

I am also not terribly fond of the idea of voting on the basic rights that a person should have, mainly because too many people allow themselves to be led around like sheep and don't bother to learn about things for themselves, so scare tactics like the ones in this letter mislead people into voting not based on what is right but based on the last thing they heard.

I don't know if this petition has been successful or not.  If it has, I hope people reject the scare tactics employed by this group and vote to give everyone equal rights and allow them to be treated with simple human dignity.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Some thoughts on personal responsibility

Personal responsibility has long been a mantra (almost a fetish) for the right for many years now.  And they are not totally wrong.  People do need to take responsibility for their lives and their decisions.  All too many people, in an effort to feel good about themselves and avoid blame/responsibility, cast around seeking to lay blame on anyone and everyone else (especially a nebulous "them") when mistakes are made or something bad happens.

Last night, I ran across an article that gives some thoughts about why many people remain unemployed.  While I know that this article is not true across the board, there are people who fit its criticisms perfectly.  Give it a read before you go on reading this, because I want there to be some context to what I am saying.  I'll give you some time....

Ok, read it?  Good.  Now, let's talk about it.  As I said just a little bit ago, this article is not wholly correct, but it does touch on some crucial points.  A lot of people do expect to be taken care of and (in general) there has been a tremendous amount of blame shifting in America and not just in this area.  Pedestrians walking wherever they want without looking, people suing over the smallest things, parents assuming that teachers are at fault over bad grades, and the list goes on and on.

Before I go any further, I must acknowledge that as far as unemployment goes, there are structural and other issues which are involved.  Personal responsibility is a part of the problem, but not the whole problem.  So don't assume (as many commenters on the articles do) that I am saying that it is entirely the unemployed fault and there is nothing else going on.  In fact, the writer acknowledges that there are other issues:

                             While dissension between political parties about fixing the
                             economy is fierce and turf battles muddy up regional and
                             local solutions, nearly everyone agrees that job training and
                             re-training programs are critical.

                             That's true. I have no qualms about training employed and
                             unemployed workers new skills. It's a must. It's a necessity.
                             It's an indisputable truth.

So complaints such as

                            This argument, that it's the fault of the unemployed that they
                            are unemployed, certainly lets corporate America off the hook.
                            Ignoring the fact that low paying jobs are hot beds of bullying,
                            abuse, and injustice, let's just blame employees.

                            Wasn't that the argument used during the Great Depression? It
                            wasn't true then and it isn't true now.

are truly ridiculous.  The writer is obviously not intending to write about all the problems, but is rather focusing on this one area.  This type of response is, in fact, a perfect example of what the author is talking about.  Rather than acknowledge that the person may be at fault, blame is immediately laid at the feet of the corporation or other group.  Again, I want to stress that I am *NOT* saying that the corporations or employers are faultless, rather I (like the writer) am saying that there is some fault that must be laid at the feet of people who don't take personal responsibility for what happens to them.

I strongly believe that a large part of the reason that people constantly lay the blame elsewhere (besides self-esteem and psychological protection) is because of the erroneous idea/doctrine of predestination.  Yes, I do know that it is a religious doctrine, but it is also a distinct part of the American thought process because it has been present from the beginning of the colonies where many of the people who originally came here were strict Calvinists who believed in predestination.  I can just hear people protesting because they may not believe in predestination themselves.  But the idea is such a basic and enduring part of the collective American psyche that it is almost reflexive in most people.  If you don't believe me, just look at the number of people who believe in "fate" or that people cannot change what will happen.  Between that and the general American belief that there must be a big, bad group behind any bad action (you know it's true!), there is very little room for people to actually take responsibility for themselves.  Add to that the various schools of thought (be they psychological, scientific, religious, or whatever) that argue that everything that we are is reducible to a series of numbers, letters, ideas, etc. and you have a recipe for abdication of personal responsibility.

This is a problem that we have to face and it will take a while to reverse course, if we can at all.  People need to acknowledge that they bear some responsibility for what happens to them (in most cases, there are always exceptions) and stop just blaming everyone around them.  We also must acknowledge that there are structural issues with the US economy and government and that these must also be addressed.  Corporations and businesses need to stop treating people like they are things to be used and cast aside and treat them like people.  They also need to stop paying CEOs and other executives obscenely large salaries and use some of that money to raise wages for people so that they have a chance at the American Dream.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Some thoughts on McCutcheon v. FEC

On April 2, 2014, the Supreme Court issued a decision in the case McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission in which the plurality argued that the legal limits on aggregate limits to political campaigns was unconstitutional.  In other words, the limits that limit how much a person could give in toto are unconstitutional.  The Court kept in place the limits that a person could contribute to a given candidate were constitutional, but argued that it was irrational to argue that giving the same amount of money to an additional candidate somehow gave rise to corruption or its appearance.  In other words, the law as it currently stands says that a given person may give x amount to y number of candidates.  If that person wants to give money to more candidates, they would have to give less money to each of the other candidates, thereby limiting the person's expression of their political beliefs.  The Court asks how, if giving a certain amount is constitutional, why giving that same amount to an additional candidate somehow gives rise to corruption or the appearance thereof.

I have to go with the Court on this one.  To argue that if I give $2500 (for example) to each of 10 candidates (let's assume that would cause me to hit the aggregate limit) how this does not give rise to corruption or its appearance, but if I give $2500 to 11 candidates that somehow I have crossed the line into corruption.  That doesn't pass the laugh test, let alone any legal challenge.  If someone can honestly explain to me why this does make sense, then go for it.  But I cannot see any way in which an argument can be made related to it.

One of the questions that both the plurality and the dissent dwell on is how to define corruption.  The plurality opinion argues that corruption is a quid pro quo or, to put it more simply, bribery.  In other words, corruption is only present if money is exchanged for a favor.  The dissent argues that even greater access to lawmakers is corruption.  While I understand the argument, I think it is entirely wrong headed.  To argue that because someone has greater access, that makes for corruption is to take the word and expand it to a degree that makes the word virtually meaningless.  To accept the dissent's definition of corruption is to basically say that any money or access is corrupting and it needs to be cut out entirely (more on that in a sec).  If you allow private money in the system at all, then this wider definition of corruption is completely undercut.

That being said, I do think that completely eliminating private money from elections could be beneficial.  There was recently a study put out be Princeton University that looked at the impact that money had on the electoral system.  I won't dwell on that right now except to urge you to read it.  It is a fairly quick and decently easy read.  Back to my point, I would like to see Congress eliminate *ALL* political donations; whether it be to PACs, candidates, or political parties; and publicly fund all elections.  Laws could be passed requiring news stations, newspapers, etc. to carry ads that promote a candidate (no attack ads) for free as a requirement of their having a license to print. broadcast, etc.  Political parties could still function by membership dues (as many non-profits do) and could recruit candidates, but could not advocate for them.  Lobbying groups would not be able to spend any money for or against candidates, but would be limited to lobbying officeholders (or officeholders-elect) once they are in office but could not give them gifts or anything.  Since everyone would be on the same footing, I believe that this plan would pass constitutional muster.

I do want to say that this plan is a variation on (I don't think it's a copy of anyway) a plan by Martin L. Gross in his book Call for Revolution.  I do not agree with a lot of what he says (and there is a lot that is flat out wrong), but I do think he has a point here.  If money is going to be allowed in the political system, I think that so long as there is not a quid pro quo, there should be few limits.  Otherwise, we run the serious risk of becoming thought police.  The more open ended definition of corruption is overly broad and not a good one.

Thoughts?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

On a corporation's "right" to freedom of religion....

Today, the Supreme Court heard Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (13-354); and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius (13-356), two cases relating to a corporation's right to exercise freedom of religion.  The cases relate to the contraception mandate (which I talked about extensively in early 2012) of the PPACA.  To sum the matters up briefly Hobby Lobby stores and Conestoga Wood Specialities Corp both claim that by when the PPACA requires that employers cover contraceptives (with allowances for churches and other religious institutions) the corporations right to freedom of religion is being violated.

This is patent and errant nonsense.  A corporation does not (and cannot) have freedom of religion.  While I agree that they should have freedom of speech (at least in and so far as political races) because the corporation should be able to advocate for or against laws that it does or does not like, there is no way that a corporation can exercise any sort of religious freedom.  Can a corporation go to church?  Can a corporation worship a deity?  Can a corporation hold to a certain set of beliefs?  The answer to all of these is obviously a resounding "NO!"  Therefore a corporation cannot have freedom of religion.

The situation here is similar to the one in Arizona a few weeks ago regarding SB 1062.  In both cases, people are trying to expand their "rights" to cover a situation that it was never meant to cover.  Then it was peoples supposed right to refuse service to whomever they wanted to on account of their "sincerely held religious beliefs".  Here it is a corporation's right to refuse to supply women with contraception because it violates the *OWNER'S* religious beliefs.  A major problem here is that the owner is then forcing their religious beliefs onto their employees.  The even bigger problem is that the businesses involved are both for-profit corporations, not religiously affiliated at all.  To extend the freedom of religion to cover this sort of business is to potentially release an avalanche of problems.  I am not a big believer in the "slippery slope" argument (in fact, I hate them), but I do want to ask a few questions.  If a owner can refuse to pay for contraceptives because of his/her religious beliefs, what else can they refuse to pay for?  Transfusions?  Transplants?  Any medical procedure?  Can they require only faith healers?  Need I go on?  Each of these is a distinct possibility given the reasoning being advanced by the companies.

Obviously, I will be writing more about this when the decision comes out in June (I think), but I wanted to get some thoughts out there.  I just hope the Supreme Court does the right thing and rejects this absurd extension of "rights" that is nothing more than trying to overturn the PPACA one bit ast a time.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

On False Equivalence Arguments

With everything that has been going on in Ukraine and Crimea recently (not gonna link to any news stories, just look on a search engine or news site and you'll find plenty), there've been a lot of opinions and thoughts flying around.  I don't want to comment on the whole crisis, just on one particular set of ideas that keeps popping up across many areas and really gets my goat, the idea of a false moral equivalence.

Recently this idea has been touted in two opinion pieces on CNN by Simon Tisdall (here and here) and an op-ed by Ron Paul in US Today.  Basically the idea goes that the arguments by the West that the vote in Crimea to secede is invalid due to the occupation by Russian troops is invalid because of the presence of US troops in Iraq during their elections.  Get it?  We had troops in Iraq, so that vote was invalid too.  Never mind the vast difference between the two circumstances, the mere surface similarities is enough to make it protestations invalid.

This really gets my goat because the proponents of this view (as far as I have seen anyway) are not looking at anything other than surface similarities.  Before I go much further, I want to link to this opinion piece by Frida Ghitis and this opinion piece by Alexander J. Motyl, both on CNN or to this piece on Slate.  The same thing happened in the Cold War when people compared the actions of the US and the USSR.  In both cases, people who opposed something didn't bother to look beneath the surface to really examine what was going on.  I am not going to get into the argument of whether we should have been in Iraq (that is separate from what I am saying here), but since we were there and we overthrew Saddam Hussein, we had an obligation to set up something new.  Also note how long we took to make sure that the election would run as smoothly as possible (given everything).  Did we have troops there?  Yes, but just like in scientific research, correlation does not imply causation (or equivalence to be more exact in this case).

Contrast this with what happened in Crimea.  After months of relatively peaceful protests, the government fires on and kills protestors.  There is a revolution and the president flees to Russia.  Within days, Crimea has (unmarked) Russian troops in its borders and then "decides" (yes, I am using quotes deliberately) to set a vote for a referendum to join Russia very quickly (March 16).  A referendum in which there was no choice to keep the status quo.  Keep in mind that Putin made similar claims when he attacked Georgia in 2008 and the fact that Russia has a horrendous history of human rights abuses.  All of these add up to make for a situation that is very different from the US troops in Iraq for the elections held *2 YEARS* after the invasion.

Look, I am not saying that the US is perfect, but I get really pissed when people make claims of moral equivalence when they are plainly false.  Making claims based on surface similarities while ignoring the underlying differences is deceitful.  I would also say it makes the person forwarding the ideas lazy, but all too often I suspect that they are not lazy, just ideologically driven and determined to prove a point heedless of other factors.  If you have to resort to false ideas and deceit to make your argument work, give it up.

I do want to emphasize (as I have said before) that I am not saying that the ends justify the means or that intent is everything, but intent is very important and needs to be considered when evaluating an action or comparing similar actions by different actors.  To do otherwise does a grave disservice to all involved and is intellectually and morally dishonest.