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Several politically right commentators have criticized Hillary Clinton's recent remarks about implicit bias, charging her with expressing her own bigotry in the process. See, for example, the Federalist and the Weekly Standard. A quick Google search turns up several others. When I first saw this, I thought it was a big of a lapse, given how quickly the right turned to the defense of Juan Williams when he was fired by NPR for basically saying the same sort of thing about people dressed in Muslim garb in airports. (See similar Google search for him.)

Williams admitted to an unconscious bias at airports when he sees people who he expects to be the more common demographic to be terrorists. He expressed some regret about this, clearly indicating that he thought something was unfortunate about being that way, but he said it's sort of understandable how people end up being fearful in that way. He was fired from NPR for being a bigot.

Clinton comes along and describes the implicit bias many white people have against young black men in hoodies. She says it's honest, open-minded, well-meaning people who have this fear, which is certainly true. That's what makes it implicit bias. It happens even among those who don't want it to, who oppose racism with every moral fiber they have. In context, it's clear that she's saying this is something that needs to change. She's not saying this is a good thing. But these critics latch on to it to insist that she must feel this fear herself, as if that somehow would make her hypocritical and a complete bigot worthy of condemnation (in a way that Williams apparently was not, at least the way many of the right acted at the time).

The point of both Williams and Clinton is that this is something unfortunate that our psychological makeup leads us to do, and it's something that ideally we should seek to change, but it's nonetheless part of how we experience race in this country. There's bad there, and there's something normal about it. Both are true. There might be slightly different nuances between the two cases, but I find it hard to believe that there's enough difference between the two cases to justify such radically different treatment. (And I'd be shocked not to find the mirror image of the right's treatment as the left begins to defend her, despite many of them having criticized Williams for saying the same thing.)

It's not hypocritical for an anti-racist to point out that they probably have implicit bias and wish that were otherwise, expressing a desire to try to find ways to deal with that. I don't have a lot of confidence that either Juan Williams or Hillary Clinton would have a lot of good things to say about what a positive response to it would be, and that's not because of their political views or anything like that. I don't expect politicians or political commentators to have much to say of value on the subject. Psychologists and psychologically-informed philosophers might have some things to say that are worth listening to, but no one has a lot of interesting and helpful suggestions about this particular problem. The best work on it shows that it forms at a very young age and doesn't really go away. Most of the ways people come up with to deal with it are very temporary or very gradual, and the best help for it is to have a more integrated society (especially at the most intimate levels of friendships and relationships). That's a good reason not to make a speech about it, as if there are a bunch of policies politicians can implement that will change this. But it's not hypocritical to do so. What is hypocritical to treat these two differently unless you can point to something that explains why he's heroic and she's evil for saying the same thing (or vice versa, for any who might defend her after having seen Williams as a bigot).

I've long thought that whether something is terrorism is independent of the motivation. You can be a terrorist for financial gain, such as the villains in 1970s spy movies. You can be a terrorist because of political ideology, striking at those you view as your political opponents. You can be a terrorist for an environmental cause. You can be a terrorist to achieve goals in an otherwise legitimate war. You can be a terrorist seeking to achieve legitimate goals of justice. You can be a terrorist purely to get revenge. It isn't tied to religion or especially to any particular religion. It isn't tied to whether the goals are good. And it isn't tied to whether the ultimate target is bad. Terrorism to achieve an overthrow of an oppressive government is just as much terrorism a  kidnapping the kids of rich people to get a ransom, blowing up supermarkets to continue a long-standing conflict, or threatening to use bio-warfare on innocents if your fallen comrades don't get acknowledged by their government as heroes (as in The Rock).

I also don't see how it matters who the actor is. A legitimate government can engage in terrorism just as much as a group of dissidents can. The United States military can use terrorist tactics as easily as a militant revolutionary group. Individual people acting on their own, political organizations out of power, and criminal organizations are no more deserving of the term than governments who oppress their people through terrorism or governments who wage war on others through terrorism.

What is distinctive about terrorism is the use of violence or at least some kind of threat to produce fear in a third party, typically someone innocent of the conflict but at least someone who isn't the primary target. The ultimate enemy is someone else, and this person or these people who are receiving the threat or who are actually being harmed are innocents or relative innocents in comparison to the real conflict going on. It doesn't matter if you're threatening to poison the water supply if you don't get money from the government or if you're burning down homes in Long Island communities because a few manufacturing facilities there are polluting. It doesn't matter if you're flying planes into buildings because you see the majority of the people who work there as complicit in an evil system or blowing up entire cities with nuclear weapons to end a war. The real target is someone other than the immediate victim. It sends a message to someone else, and that's what makes it terrorism.

A lot of people in my Twitter feed are saying the church shooting last night is an act of terrorism and that hardly anyone is acknowledging it because the victims were black. If there is a message that this shooting was intended to spread, then I would say that it is terrorism. It's mainly people on the left who seem interested in pointing out this kind of case as terrorism. Most people wouldn't think of it that way, but it seems like it might be. I don't have a problem with that, provided that the perpetrator really did this so that a larger audience would come away with a certain message. That would indeed count as terrorism, I think.

At the same time, the very same people who are quick to call this terrorism were very hesitant to say anything negative about the Baltimore protestors engaging in terrorist acts. On the above analysis, it's pretty clear that it's terrorism to burn down a home for poor black retirees built by a black church, just to send a message about an unjust system of justice and law enforcement. This, of course, happened in Baltimore. The right called it rioting, and the left called it protesting, but it's terrorism. Those outraged about calling the church shooting terrorism are inconsistent if they don't think that was terrorism too. And the difference is that we knew the motives in that case, since it was part of the larger protesting/rioting phenomenon, which was a reaction to a particular incident we already knew much about (and certainly knew the protestors' view on), while in this one it's still a breaking story, and we need to be hesitant about making hasty judgments when we don't know all the facts. But I think it's clear that both sides of the political spectrum need to realize that there are certain kinds of terrorist acts that they're more inclined to recognize as terrorism and certain ones they're less inclined to recognize as terrorism, and it would be nice if we could be more consistent.

California has outlawed so-called ex-gay conversion therapy. Social conservatives who might want to express outrage at this law need to make sure they're going to be consistent with their own views on other matters. Also, surprising as it may be to some, there are reasons for those with more liberal views on these matters to worry about a law like this.

I'll start with the second point. Those who recognize homosexuality as a social construction should at least be open to a worry about this law. Most experts nowadays consider our notion of being gay as socially constructed. There have been different ways of conceiving of people with same-sex desires over history. In ancient Greece, for example, it was relatively accepted for older men to favor a sexual relationship with boys over that of their wives, not because they had some notion of people who have an orientation toward people of the same sex but because they didn't think they could have as deep an intellectual relationship with women, and they thought relationships that we would now count as pedophilia were a deeper form of love because they could involve intellectual conversations.

We now have a notion that there's a phenomenon called homosexuality, where a small minority among the population has sexual desires for people of their own sex rather than for people of the opposite sex. But most people recognize now, whether they approve of such desires or not, that it's more complicated than that. There are people who have both kinds of desires, relatively in equal proportion. There are people who have more one than the other. There are people who have one predominant at one time in their life but move to a point at another time where it's the other way around. There are people who move toward same-sex sexual interaction primarily for political purposes rather than because of some already-existing inner state of being primarily attracted along same-sex lines. But our social narrative primarily divides human beings into the binary of gay and straight, with some allowance for bisexual when we're feeling a desire for more precision. The variety isn't remotely captured by that, never mind the phenomenon of trans-sexuality, and the idea that being in one of the two categories of the binary is simply a matter of how someone was born isn't exactly borne out by science, even if there is some evidence that the underlying state of how one's desires are directly can be partially influenced by genetic factors.

Many on the left on these issues push for alternative conceptions of homosexuality, including allowing those who see their same-sex attraction in a way that resists being considered gay in the usual sense, and if same-sex attraction is much more complex than just being straight or gay, as many who might be inclined to favor a law like this might think, then shouldn't we be interested in allowing therapists to encourage moving away from the homo/hetero binary? But it seems to me that this law might ban therapists from doing that, because it would be helping move someone with same-sex attraction away from thinking of themselves as gay. Many on the left on these issues should see that as highly problematic.

It's less surprising to many to see social conservatives resisting a law like this, but such resistance isn't as easy to formulate as it sounds, because the grounds for it might conflict with other conservative views. For example, if we don't have a right to health insurance covering exactly the things we think are medically necessary, then we don't have a right to health insurance covering a particular therapy that we happen to want covered. If we don't have a right to doctors performing a particular procedure that we happen to want performed, then we don't have a right to this therapy if we want it.

That being said, conservatives can consistently hold that the government shouldn't interfere with what private counselors can do, even if what they want to do is disapproved of by the main professional organization. But most people do think medical services can be licensed, and certain things done by doctors can make them lose their license. So this is, at least in principle, something that is within the government's traditional range of control. But I'd have to see the law, because if the guy NPR had on opposing it is correct then it sounds like they outlawed a good deal more than what careful study has shown to be both ineffective and psychologically harmful (i.e. the conversion therapy itself) and will not even allow a therapist to help someone who has unwanted same-sex desires to live a life that avoids what they see as sinful and unwanted (which is not remotely the same as converting them away from a sexual orientation). I'm not sure there's any scientific ground for taking it to be harmful to choose a celibate life over fulfilling one's sexual desires, and therefore the normal licensing standards shouldn't require it to be banned.

There may also be a religious issue. They did apparently include a religious exemption. But not exactly. They included an exemption for counselors who are practicing religious officials of some sort but who are not licensed counselors. A pastor, priest, or other religious leader who happens to counsel is exempt. But a nun working as a licensed counselor in a more medically-oriented psychological practice is not exempt. And a licensed counselor operating a business not being run as a religious non-profit is not exempt. Is this a violation of free exercise? I suspect it is, at least in terms of the aspects that are banned that aren't demonstrated as harmful (such as helping someone to find a counselor who can help them live a celibate life or referring them to a therapist who will encourage them to think outside the gay/straight binary or allow them to think of themselves in a way that is more about having same-sex desires than about belonging to some supposedly-scientific category of being gay, which really involves more politically than many think, and someone who opposes those politics but does have same-sex desires may well not be gay in every sense). Again, this is assuming the opponent of the law on NPR represented it accurately, but the state senator who supported the bill on that show didn't offer any correction on the matter.

There's also the issue of viewpoint-neutral endorsement. This is another place where conservatives will have a harder time making their case. They tend to think there's no problem with the government or government employees endorsing statements of religious content, because the establishment clause only prohibits the setting up of an official government-run religion, and many conservatives don't even think this applies to states. After all, several states had official religions when they entered the union. So it's going to be hard to press this argument if you hold that sort of view on the establishment clause. You might, however, make an argument involving inconsistency among those who do think it's unconstitutional for the state to endorse religious content (or rule out religious content). And you might easily make the argument on policy grounds, rather than as a constitutional problem that courts can then deal with.

On the consistency issue, I think there's some case to be made, but it's because there's already serious inconsistency. If we take seriously the prohibition of even mentioning classic philosophical arguments like design arguments in a science classroom, on the ground that it's somehow endorsement of religion, then we already are banning lots of stuff that isn't remotely religion. Because the design argument need depend in no way on any controversial religious premise, it's not as if someone who endorses such an argument has to be following any religion at all. It could be a purely secular theist who endorses a design argument. And merely teaching the argument, rather than endorsing it, is certainly not endorsement of religion. So those who claim that that's importing religion into the science classroom have such a broad view of what counts as religion that it might well be very hard to see this law as not endorsing a claim that speaks to a religious issue. It's on such grounds that a federal court has ruled that it's unconstitutional to present the arguments against intelligent design in a state-run science classroom, because it took that to violate the establishment clause.

But a much more reasonable position would be that intelligent design is not necessarily religion, even if it's also not strictly speaking science (although I would argue, and have argued, that it's not any less science than the metaphysics that commonly gets done by physicists working on cosmology, quantum-theory, and space-time). Someone who holds this more reasonable position might nonetheless not hold the conservative view on the establishment clause and therefore think that President Obama shouldn't be invoking God the way he does or that it's unconstitutional to endorse actual religious content in a public school science classroom, such as endorsing six-day creationism because the Bible teaches it. On that sort of view, it's still easy to present an unconstitutionality argument for this law. After all, the legal issues are the same as the above cases, but without the ridiculous claim that philosophical arguments are somehow automatically religious just because a lot of religious people accept them (which would make most of our beliefs religious). Then all you need to do is recognize that the value of at least some of the therapy falling under this broad ban is both (1) not as clearly harmful as some of the therapy it bans and (2) something religious people can endorse because of their religion. In that case, the government is not remaining viewpoint-neutral on a religious matter without the strong argument that the therapy is harmful.

And even someone who does hold the conservative view on the establishment clause (or who isn't willing to argue a case base on existing but wrongly-decided precedent) can give a policy argument against this at the legislative level. It's not unconstitutional, on this view, but it's compatible with that to think that as a policy matter the government should remain viewpoint-neutral on controversial matters of religious disagreement that aren't demonstrably harmful the way medical professionals do take ex-gay therapy proper to be demonstrably harmful. The result is that this is just poor policy and should be opposed as bad law. And that's something that someone pretty far on the left on same-sex issues should be all right with. The government shouldn't tell us what to think about such matters, and it shouldn't stop us from getting counseling that fits with what sort of life we want for ourselves, and if a minor happens to want this sort of therapy it shouldn't be illegal for a counselor who is willing to do it or to refer someone to someone who will out of respect for the client's wishes as long as it isn't one of those demonstrably-harmful methods that the ban doesn't limit itself to.

So I think a lot of the conservative arguments against this ban need to be very carefully done to succeed, but I think there are arguments, and some of them might appeal to those more toward the left. But those are more against the law as it stands, rather than against a different ban that could have been enacted. I do think there are real tensions on the left in how these issues are thought of, and I'm not sure it's as easy to justify this broad a ban as I assume many on the left would think.

Interesting post at the Feminist Philosophers blog about Ann Romney's speech last night, where she recognizes systemic inequality between men and women, with women doing a lot more of the work on average than the men who share responsibilities with them. Is Ann Romney saying such structural and systemic inequality is just fine? I'm not so sure, and I'm repeating my comment on that post here. [Caveat: I didn't hear the speech or read the transcript of the whole thing, just what appears on that post.]

It's not clear to me that she's saying it's fine for women to have to work harder than men. I think she might just be saying that it's fine that life is isn't easy.

There's actually a little speech in the biblical book of I Peter that directs people in subordinate positions to do good to those over them, not because they deserve it or because anything unjust that they might do is legitimate, but because the more important goal is to win them over by good deeds. Feminism gets complicated when you're more concerned about the eternal salvation of those participating in oppressive structures than you are about the often-small ways that those structures manifest themselves on a day-to-day basis for those who happen to be affected by them in more minor ways.

It would mean, then, that you don't have to think those structures are perfectly all right to think that women should put up with them, because the putting-up with them is for a higher purpose. There's much of this kind of thinking in Augustine, who would accept any form of government for keeping order in this society, and how just it is isn't as important to him as going along with the laws Socrates-style but for the sake of winning over by good behavior those he sees as heading in the wrong direction spiritually. It allows him to think certain ways of ruling are intrinsically bad but are not worth resisting (and thus he has very mixed feelings about slavery, seeing something wrong with it and worth resisting on one level but also as an institution that Christians can work within to do a more important task of being a light to the darkness of the slaveowners. It's love for their enemy.

I don't how much of this approach would be manifest among Mormons, but I have to wonder if that's the kind of thinking that lies behind Ann Romney's speech. If I heard this kind of thing from an evangelical, it's how I'd take it, and evangelicals and Mormons are at least culturally very similar, even if they're worlds apart theologically.

A common theme in the last few days is the tying of Romney's Birther joke to race. He joked, in his hometown, that no one had ever asked him to prove that he was born in the U.S. The idea is that Romney was playing to the deep suspicion that people inclined to accept Birtherism have of Obama, and the suspicion they have is basically racism. So Romney was deliberately invoking racist ideas in potential supporters in order to get fringe Americans who already hate Obama onto his side, while knowingly alienating the swing voters he's been desperately trying to get onto his side by trying to be as mainstream as possible without sacrificing the essentials the rightward base needs him to keep.

In furtherance of this narrative, there was a #FutureMittJokes Twitter hashtag game that trended pretty high that consisted of people inventing jokes where Romney took great delight in the privileges that come from being white, at the cost of others' having their rights violated or at least being mistreated. So Romney was projected to be likely to make jokes like the following:

"No one ever burnt a cross on *my* lawn."
"It's called the *White* House for a reason!"
"People never joke about me planting a watermelon patch on the White House lawn!"
"Nobody ever told me I couldn't attend that all White high school!"
"no one ever asked me if i was sure i was in the right place"
"No one ever told me to sit at the back of the bus. wht is a bus anyway"
"No one ever told ME I couldn't marry a White woman."
"I never get pulled over when driving one of Ann's Cadillacs"
"When the police pulls me over, they're only asking me for directions."
"No one ever burnt a cross on *my* lawn."

I'm not buying it. Romney was certainly making a jab about Obama. Anyone who denies that is being disingenuous. But what was the critique? I would have thought it had mostly to do with the repeated criticism of Obama on foreign relations. Obama bowed to foreign leaders. He accepted a Nobel Prize for not having done anything but replace Bush. He undermined national security by fighting dead battles about policies Bush abandoned in 2003. He leaked top secret information for electoral gain. He often favors our enemies over our allies. He criticizes us abroad. He is unwilling to acknowledge Muslim terrorists as terrorists or as Muslims. And so on. The list is quite long, and it's full of actual content that has nothing to do with race.

Those sorts of themes strike me as what feeds the idea that Obama doesn't have American interests at the center of his motivating structure. It's about how he behaves when dealing with other nations. I don't myself buy that entire picture. He's not always very wise in some of things he does, and it does endanger national security and embarrass the U.S. at times, but I think some of those criticisms are simply unfair. But there are those who are convinced that the U.S. president does not always have a significant concern for U.S. interests driving his foreign policy or his relations with other nations. That's completely undeniable. And there is plenty of content to the charge, particular things he's done or has been believed to have done, that does not have anything to do with his race or the fact that he was raised abroad for part of his childhood or that he was raised living as if a Muslim for some of that time. Any white dude with similar experiences and actions would arouse the same suspicion from the same people.

It's easy to see race driving this if you don't think there's any substance to those criticisms, but the fact is that a lot of people do believe there's substance to them, and it's not because Obama is black. It's because they see such behavior as unfitting of a U.S. president. They would have worried about Clinton doing any of it as much as they do Obama. It's not his race but his leftward orientation, his past as a community organizer, his privileged, elite education, and how he actually behaved when traveling abroad during his first presidential campaign that drove the suspicion that motivates people who see him as a sort of traitor to American values. And I think that, together with his Muslim influence from childhood, is what drives the Birther narrative, and it would do so even if he had been a white guy with a white, French father whose mother married a white American convert to Islam in the U.S. and then moved to Canada for a while to be enrolled in a Muslim school with extremist ties. The whole thing could just as easily have happened without the African or Indonesian elements, which means it's not race that's central. I'm sure there are some who are suspicious of him just because of his race, but I think it's been pretty clear that that's a thin sliver of those who disagree with him on policy matters. The fact that the conservative base, including the Tea Party people, could be happy with Herman Cain during the primaries seems to me to be about as close to proof as you get on such matters.

I imagine Romney agrees with a good deal of the foreign relations complaint I've outlined above, and it makes complete sense that he would make a joke at the expense of the Birthers, whom he has consistently criticized and distanced himself from. The idea is that Obama is the sort of person that crazy people can make crazy conspiracy theories about, because he fits the profile that feeds the narrative. This is because of his policies, language, and behavior toward other nations. That he was implicitly hinting at a racial narrative is not very likely. The way the story is told assumes that he was playing to the Birthers' own racism, when he was instead making fun of Birthers and invoking something that Obama's opponents take to be a serious, non-racial critique that the racial-accusers don't seem to recognize as even being part of it. The racial-narrative claim is possible if you don't think Romney could be referencing the actual content behind why people see Obama as anti-American. That a good deal of those arguments seem implausible to many on the left, I think, is what leads them to turn to other explanations. But it's poor reasoning to attribute an extreme, and psychologically unlikely, view to someone just because the more psychologically plausible view for them to be holding is one you disagree with.

Romney is not stupid enough to be doing what these critics are claiming he is doing. If he knew that people would interpret the joke the way the FutureMittJokes hashtag did, he would have considered it at the very least politically stupid (and I think he would recognize its moral offensiveness). So I'm sure he couldn't have even imagined that someone might reasonably take it to be about Obama's race. I would have a hard time imagining that if I hadn't seen people doing that and then claiming that any intelligent person must agree.

Furthermore, the joke wouldn't have had even a chance of humor if he expected people to be taking him seriously in criticizing Obama as not born in America. He has to have been making fun of Birthers for the attempt at humor even to have worked. Otherwise it would not have even been a joke. For it to be a joke, he has to be not recognizing the validity of the Birther charge and in fact making the joke at Birthers' expense.

Accusations of racism when it is not obviously present are the biggest reason so many conservatives think racism is a thing of the past, and they'll continue to fail to see the systemic and structural elements that have disparate racial effects if they're constantly made to be on the defense about issues where they are fully aware that the left is fabricating racist motives. Sometimes this is an understandable but unfortunate psychological response when there in fact is genuinely a racial element, and those who see it need to point it out, which is what some of these critics think they're doing here. But that very enterprise gets frustrated when it gets extended to situations where there's a highly plausible, even a more likely, explanation of someone's motives, as there clearly is in this case. Anyone who understands the implicit critique of Obama here is going to recognize that and will see the attempts to call it racist as shallow fabrications, which will prevent them from even recognizing racialized elements in the cases where they really are there. That's no way to further racial understanding, and that's why I think Newt Gingrich is right to see this kind of critique of Romney as frustrating racial progress, even if he's wrong in claiming that those who are making the criticism are therefore racist in doing so.

[Update 8/29: I saw a tweet today that well captures the attitude that Obama is anti-American in ways that don't rely on his race at all. It said, "Question for liberals: Why does Obama give money, guns, and oil to Mexicans but wants to take all away from Americans?"]

I noticed something odd yesterday in the transcript for NPR's Political Junkie. At the beginning of every week's episode, they play a bunch of clips from famous politicians. Here is the list from the transcript:

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?

SENATOR BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

SENATOR LLOYD BENTSON: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.


PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: But I'm the decider.


Two things are strange. The first is that Sarah Palin is listed with no honorific title, as all the men who are listed are given. The second is that Howard Dean isn't listed at all for his scream. The second might be because whoever did the transcript amazingly doesn't know about Dean's famous "I have a scream" moment. I'm not sure. But everyone else has names listed, and the only one with a name listed who is just listed by name is Governor Sarah Palin. The other governor, Rick Perry, is listed as Governor Rick Perry. Palin is just Sarah Palin, as if her achievement of being governor is not important in her case. The senators, presidents, and vice-president all have their titles. But Sarah Palin is just Sarah Palin.

Is that implicit sexism on the part of whoever does the transcript? Is it part of a more specific bias against conservative women? Is it simply bias against Palin herself? I'm not sure we should speculate on exactly what leads the trasncriptionist to discount the title of her elected office, but it's certainly irresponsible, and this is not something limited to just this week's transcript. The last few weeks do it this way. I checked randomly in a number of other Wednesdays to see if it's consistent. The first older one I tried just listed her as Palin, while the others had full names and titles. But this does seem to be a common feature of their weekly transcript. Most of them had just the pattern I see in this week's transcript, and the fact that the higher-ups don't seem to notice it over a lengthy period of time, and presumably no one has pointed it out to them, or they would have done something about it, suggests that the implicit bias at work here is more than just one person's.

[I did find one in 2010 that lists Howard Dean. Interestingly, it lists him as Mr. Howard Dean, despite his being both a former governor and a medical doctor. Sarah Palin is listed as Ms. Sarah Palin in that one. This is before Rick Perry was added, so there are no governors in the lineup except Palin and Dean. Nevertheless, it's still odd that she would be listed as Ms. and Dean as Mr., when the others are all listed as senators, presidents, and vice-president.

I also found one that did get Palin right, calling her a former governor. Some of the formers are formers in that one. Some of them are not. That's odd, but it's the only one I found that didn't fit the pattern at all, suggesting someone else did that transcript. But the next week gets rid of the formers and still lists titles for Dean and Palin. So it's not a completely consistent pattern, but it does seem to me to be much more often than an occasional mistake.]

My GOP Predictions

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This is worth next to nothing. I'm not generally very good at predictions (although I did correctly predict who would be the final Cylon, nine months in advance). But here's my suspicion of what will happen in the GOP primary for the 2012 race for U.S. president.

Currently Newt Gingrich has been enjoying his brief turn at the top as the non-Romney candidate, as Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain have done. Like the others, he will soon drop. Indications are strong that Ron Paul will briefly occupy the top spot, perhaps even winning the Iowa caucuses and the NH primary. During this time, he'll finally get the exposure his fans have wanted. Moderate and mainstream conservatives will see how significantly he wants to dismantle the federal government. Libertarian Republicans will see that he isn't really one of them but is just an extreme federalist who doesn't want the federal government doing much, but his social conservatism will turn them off. Social conservatives will stop being fooled by his pro-life and other socially-conservative positions when they see that he has no backbone to stand of for such concerns on the federal level. Non-isolationists will be offended at his unwillingness to engage in any ventures of foreign policy to help around the world, and anyone concerned about national security will be scared to death of his willingness to dismiss Iran by saying we just need to be nice to them. To many, he will make Obama look like Dick Cheney. Most important, people of any moral conscience will see his willingness to pal around with racists and tolerate the use of their publications for political gain.

That will leave Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum as the two unvetted candidates. Each will have a turn as the non-Romney, for perhaps a couple weeks each. Huntsman will probably be first. His willingness to work in the Obama Administration and his out-of-context quotes that have wrongly led many to see him as a moderate instead of the genuine conservative that he is will lead Santorum to have a brief time in the spotlight. He is mostly untested. He's known as a social conservative. The left has successfully portrayed him as an extremist, despite the fact that his views are pretty mainstream for social conservatism. That will all occur in an extreme way, and he'll be given the Sarah Palin treatment, as Bachmann was. His statements will be taken out of context. Some of his views that are quite mainstream will be made fun of as neanderthal and called beyond the pale. He does have some strange notions of the Constitution that might or might not become the main issues. I tend to think they won't, because the focus from the left will be not on his odd views but on his mainstream once, which they will portray as ridiculous. But I think his views of foreign policy will be his undoing. GOP primary-goers will dismiss the left's hand-waving on those issues and will worry about views of his that just don't sound reasonable to most Republicans. I know only a little about his views on such matters (I haven't had time to watch more than bits and pieces of the debates, and he's not getting much attention), but being in the room when one debate focusing on those issues early on happened to be playing led me to think that he was making Ron Paul sound mainstream.

What will happen after that is wide open. At this point we'll be getting to a number of bigger states, and the early states will have been all over the map, leading each one (and several are simultaneous) to go in different directions. Candidates with strengths in certain regions will win more states in those regions. It's possible there will be a consensus. The non-Romney supporters will eventually concede and go with Romney, or the Romney supporters may eventually settle on some other candidate. But I'm guessing this will go on for a while, perhaps with no candidate receiving enough delegates to have a clear candidate by the time of the convention. This may well be the first brokered convention in decades. Just four years ago, pundits were claiming that we could never have such a thing again. I'm not so sure. This year looks like a really good chance for it. My suspicion is that Romney will eventually win, although I wouldn't rule out Huntsman, and Gingrich may still have a chance. I don't think Paul, Gingrich, or Santorum will be the nominee. But I can't even really be sure of that. I'd be a little surprised if the first few states turn out to settle things as quickly as they usually do, however.

If this is all right, the GOP will have a harder time using the convention to promote their candidate, which will help Obama a bit. But at the same time he'll have a harder time crafting his own campaign with an opponent in mind, which will mean he won't be able to craft his public image or message in contrast to anyone in particular. There might be some advantage in that, because he'll continue to be able to run against the House Republicans, as he's been doing so far. But I suspect it will frustrate him greatly, and it will play to his weaknesses as a president rather than his strengths as a campaigner.

As to who will win, my prediction is that if Romney gets the nomination he'll have a strong chance of winning the presidency. I think the same is true of Hunstman. Perhaps he would have an even easier time, because he doesn't have a record of changing his mind on one big issue, like Romney has, with every other minor statement being misused out-of-context to pretend he can't take a stand on anything. Perry could pull it off but would have a much tougher time of it, and I think he would more likely lose than win. I don't think Gingrich, Paul, Bachmann, or Santorum could have much chance against Obama unless he tanks much more than he has so far (and he's just gotten a bit of a boost, actually). Gingrich would clean house in the debates, of course. But all four figures have lower positives and as-high negatives as Obama. Even Obama's negatives would, therefore, not help them.

If GOP voters want to make Obama a one-term president, their best shot will be to focus on Romney or Huntsman. They'll have to learn to be more charitable than people largely have so far in interpreting what they've said, and they'll have to settle for the inevitable conclusion that they won't like everything about their candidate. I suspect any other path is likely to lead to another term for Obama, and GOP efforts at some notion of ideological purity would end up leading to what it led to in 2010, this time with the presidency at stake rather than the control of the Senate (if Colorado, Delaware, and New Mexico had nominated more mainstream candidates we might have ended up with a Republican Senate at present).

Herman Cain on abortion

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Here are some things Herman Cain has said about abortion:

1. He's opposed to abortion in all circumstances, but it's not the government's role to make that decision.
2. The president has no authority to order people not to seek an abortion.
3. He would appoint judges who know the Constitution contains no right to abortion.
4. He would veto legislation funding Planned Parenthood.
5. In the case of rape, it comes down to a family & doctor choice. He's opposed to it morally but shouldn't tell the nation what to think, because the government shouldn't be making our decisions on social issues.
6. The government shouldn't make decisions on whether abortion should be legal.
7. People shouldn't be free to seek abortions. Abortion should not be legal. (This was said immediately after 6.)
8. He opposes abortion with exceptions.
9. He opposes abortion except when the mother's life is threatened.

Sources: Huffington Post, CNN, Wikipedia

When it comes to Herman Cain's view on abortion, we seem to have a choice among (a) the uncharitable dishonest-about-his-views interpretion, i.e. he's not consistently being honest about what he thinks (b) the uncharitable intelligence interpretation, i.e. he's holding a flatly inconsistent set of beliefs in a pretty explicit way, (c) the uncharitable dishonest flip-flopper interpretation, i.e. he's not being honest about some change of views (and one such change has to be within minutes, (d) the uncharitable misuse-of-language interpretation, i.e. he's perhaps saying someone, perhaps only some of the time, that everyone misunderstands because of a highly idiosyncratic use of terms, or (e) he's got such a nuanced set of views that I can't even figure out how to put it together, with all my training in doing so.

(e) is the most charitable, but I'm extremely skeptical that he's so finely-tuned in his language without one of the others being true. I tend to think (d) is the least uncharitable of the others. Perhaps he means "it's not the role of government" and "it's the person's choice" in odd ways. You can, after all, say the second while thinking certain options should be illegal. You just wouldn't say so in an abortion discussion without being radically misunderstood. You could, also, say the first while thinking it's the role of a legislature but not the role of the executive or legislature to countermand the wrongful decision of the courts, but again you'd be radically misunderstood. That's about as good as I can do to put this together, and if it takes something like that, I think he's politically finished. There's no way the general public is going to be willing to be that charitable. But that may well be what's going on.

So here's my proposal. I'm going to take Herman Cain to hold to the following positions, all of them compatible with all of the above statements if they might have pragmatically-odd by semantically-possible meanings, and I'm going to see if I (or a commenter) might find a statement by him that does not fit with this view. So here's the approach I have in mind:

So (1) means abortion is morally wrong in all cases, but it's not the federal legislative and executive's right to do anything on that issue anymore, given the Supreme Court's wrongful intervention on the issue. (2) means the president can't tell people what to think and has been removed from being able to have any direct influence on abortion law at least at the very general level of deciding when it is legal to have an abortion in cases when the Supreme Court takes it to be a fundamental right. (3) clearly states that the Supreme Court wrongly decided Roe v. Wade, despite several claims that he hasn't made such a statement from social conservatives, and his preference for judges who would seek to do what they could to reverse or roll back that decision. (4) signals his opposition to federal funding for abortion or for abortion providers, something a president can have some say in. (5) signals his moral opposition to abortion in rape cases but his willingness to think that (i) that's a case when the law should be less clear than he thinks morality is, (ii) he as president shouldn't dictate what Americans' views on such matters ought to be, even if he has a clear policy preference, or (iii) given the Supreme Court's dictates, it's no longer the president's position but is given to a woman and a doctor to decide, even if he would prefer that the Supreme Court hadn't done that and would undo that dictate. (6) If he means the legislative and executive branch of the federal government here, and he isn't giving his ideal preference but his understanding of the limited role the Supreme Court has given him as president, then it's consistent with his view in his immediate next statement. (7) Ideally abortion should be outlawed, even if it's not possible to do so right now on the level of the legislature and executive. (8) Abortion is almost always wrong. There are exceptions, and he's aware of at least one. (9) One of those exceptions is when the mother's life is threatened, and there may or may not be others (and from above rape is not one of them).

This does strike me as a consistent position, and it does mean taking some of his statements in odd ways, but that's clearly more charitable than taking him to be lying about what his views are, lying about some change in his views, or so confused on the issue that he can't put together meaningful back-to-back statements explaining coherent positions. He does have an Obama-like history of overstating things and having to take them back, but his clarifications don't usually have the character of stating a view he holds and then backing off to a view he doesn't hold, and they also don't usually have the character of being corrected but embarassed to admit it. They usually have the character of not realizing how he might be misinterpreted and then being more careful the second time. It's just that this would be a case where his attempts to be more careful are only partially successful.

So that's my proposal of what I think he most likely is thinking. I admit that there are a couple points where it's a little bit of a stretch, but I don't think the evidence justified being less charitable at this point, and I'm not going to support misrepresentation  even by accident, which is I think what's going on if people are legitimately convinced he's pro-choice if he really isn't. He's certainly got a problem stating his views, but I'm not sure the general-election opponent is any better at expressing his views.

I can't see why pro-life voters would want this man representing them on this issue, but a vote for a president isn't necessarily a vote for the ideal person to represent your cause. It's a vote for the candidate that you think is better than the others. In a primary, that means the person who can best balance (a) the ability to beat the other candidate and (b) the ability to be a decent enough president to be preferable to the other party's candidate. In a general election, it's almost always a choice between two candidates as to which one will be better than the other on the issues you think are most important. It may turn out that someone who isn't the best person to represent your views on an issue does satisfy these criteria. Whether that person for pro-life Republicans is Herman Cain is, at least, not yet settled by this issue, in my view (although there are other issues that might serve as possible obstacles, and I could see this issue turning into one, depending on further statements that I haven't seen or he hasn't yet made). It partly depends on other people, too, but I have a better sense of what they think, at least the ones with much chance of winning.


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Henry Neufeld has a nice analysis of the Dominionismism stuff. See my comments for an analysis of Chip Berlet's weird view of what Dominionism is.

In reading Berlet's article, it occurred to me that we need a term for the conspiracy theory that George W. Bush stole the presidency in 2000 and again in 2004. Just about no one seriously entertains the idea that 2004 should have gone to Kerry if the process had been followed legally but that Bush's cronies in Ohio stole it for him. Apparently Berlet is one of those "just about no one". I say that's grounds for calling him a conspiracy theorist even apart from his Dominionismism.

I would contend, further, that thinking Bush stole the election in 2000 is even a conspiracy theory, given that the recounts done by the Florida newspapers ended up concluding that Gore could have won only if they had done a recount using the most liberal standard available, one many Democrats had been opposing.

(Not to mention that I think Bush v. Gore, while not the best opinion the Supreme Court could have produced, was generally rightly-decided. That the crucial premise of their decision was supported 7-2 indicates that there probably really is something to their concern. I'd call that bi-partisan. That the solution of the 2 who didn't join the majority but accepted that point would have violated federal law suggests that the majority were probably in the right direction, even if they weren't right on all the details. But I need not rely on that to claim that it's a conspiracy theory to think that Gore would have won but for some manipulation on the part of the Bush team. All it requires is that Gore would almost certainly not have won no matter how the Supreme Court had decided, unless they had just declared him the winner and done what the left has consistency pretended they did with Bush.)

In any case, I'm proposing a name for this conspiracy theory in the spirit of Birthers and Truthers. I call these people Stolers. It's just as bad a term as the others, and it perverts the language just as mightily, so I think it will do nicely. Besides, it's the right number of syllables. With 'Dominionismists' I failed at achieving that parallel. But if Henry is right on the different kind of mechanism producing Dominionismism, then maybe it shouldn't be parallel. (See his response to my comment on his post.)


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I've determined that there's a political faction out there that needs a name, because it's a group of conspiracy theorists with a particular agenda that's becoming somewhat influential, and it's achieving its agenda fairly well. Its agenda is to discredit mainstream evangelicalism by confusing it with extremist figures who have nearly zero influence on much of any importance. I'm going to call this group the Dominionismists, because their whole agenda depends on this fictional line of thought called Dominionism [sic].

Dominionismism begins, as far as I can tell, with a sociology Ph.D. dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley, by a woman named Sara Diamond. Diamond's dissertation sought to expose a group of Christians she was calling Dominionists [sic], who held the view " that Christians alone are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns". Dominionismists like to lump together such diverse figures as Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, R.J. Rushdoony, James Dobson, Gary North, Greg Bahnsen, D. James Kennedy, Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Randall Terry, Pat Robertson, Charles Colson, and Nancy Pearcey as influential figures in the development of Dominionism [sic].

Now while most of these people are nearly household names to me, many people reading this might not know who any or many of them are, so let me break it down a little. Abraham Kuyper was a prime minister in the Netherlands a little more than a century ago, and his vision of a Christian interaction with politics was that Christianity includes both (a) influencing non-believers with the good news of salvation and (b) attempting to do what good we can in the world, and that involves seeking to implement policies that Christians agree with. He thought it was perfectly proper for people of any mindset to seek to implement the policies they thought would be best, and therefore Christians should implement policies that are based on principles they hold as part of their Christian worldview. He didn't think there was some biblical obligation for Christians to take over all the positions in every secular institution. He did think it was appropriate for Christians to seek a biblically-aware worldview that informs how they influence society for good, including occupying positions of influence.

Francis Schaeffer was of the same mindset, basically, and he was influential in bringing Protestants to care about the abortion issue, which before Schaeffer was mainly a Catholic issue. Schaeffer is more importantly credited with bringing evangelicals to care about theology, philosophy, and intellectual endeavor more generally, playing a large role in influencing evangelicals to go back into the academy that fundamentalists had left in the early 20th century as it was becoming more dominated by secularists and theological liberals. Schaeffer's main influence in evangelicalism is in opposing anti-intellectualism and calling on evangelicals to think through their worldview and the worldviews of those around them, considering what sorts of views are out there and influencing them and how to think more carefully for themselves whether their views fit with scripture and whether they fit together consistently. He emphasized the gospel message's importance in influencing every aspect of someone's life, with an impact on how you live, how you pursue your career, and what sorts of intellectual pursuits you engage in if you have a career that has any relation to such pursuits. Nancey Pearcey is a Schaeffer-influenced contemporary author who has published works that continue largely in the pattern of her mentor.

Some of the figures in the list are politically-active evangelicals of various stripes. D. James Kennedy was a Presbyterian minister who had a TV ministry that was very much not like most televangelists. His Reformed theology set him apart for one thing, compared with Baptist Jerry Falwell and Pentecostal Pat Robertson. All three spent time arguing on behalf of particular causes associated with the religious right, but Kennedy's theological background was much closer to Schaeffer's. Schaeffer spent time trying to rein them all in, according to Schaeffer's son-in-law Udo Middelmann (see his 9:52am comment here on 8-11-11), preferring to influence society with the gospel and to change people's minds with argument, rather than simply putting Christians in government positions with a disproportionate representation without changing the opinions of those whose worldviews did not support the agenda of those Christians. So here we have a further distinction among the figures in the list between those who want Christians to seek to occupy positions in government or to influence policy directly (without necessarily thinking Christians somehow have a right to all such positions, as Dominionism [sic] purportedly holds, and those who think Christians shouldn't even bother with that sort of thing but should instead seek to influence people's hearts, and then they'll vote their conscience.

Then there's a very different mindset out there called Christian Reconstructionism. R.J. Rushdoony, Gary Bahnsen, and Gary North argue that the proper Christian view of law and politics is a Christian theonomy, which means applying God's law as revealed in the Bible fairly directly in the laws of whatever society we're part of. Rushdoony argues for imposing penalties from the Torah for our day, including putting people to death for having gay sex or for getting married under false pretenses of virginity. Rushdoony also argued independently for several theses that have caught on among non-theonomists, such as the idea that the founders of the United States saw this country as a Christian nation and did not intend for the First Amendment to prohibit states from endorsing a particular Christian denomination but that it simply prevented the federal government from taking a stance among the Christian denominations. He saw the American Revolution as motivated in significant part by an orthodox Christian resistance to a secularized British government, and many in the homeschool movement have been attracted to those ideas, without necessarily buying into the whole theonomist project. He also saw the institution of slavery as relatively benevolent, opposed forced integration and interracial marriage, and bought into Holocaust deniers' claims that the number of Jews killed by Nazi Germany has been wildly exaggerated.

It's not hard to see the huge gap between standard Religious Right social conservatism and its claims of this being a Christian nation that needs to be restored to its roots and the kind of vision Rushdoony had, even apart from the racial elements I just mentioned. It strikes me as irresponsible to lump him together with Francis Schaeffer and those influenced by him, especially given Schaeffer's many recorded instances of resisting exactly the kinds of views Rushdoony developed. Indeed, it strikes me as an error of the magnitude of some of Rushdoony's own historical nonsense to consider there to be such a view called Dominionism [sic] that Rushdoony, Schaeffer, James Dobson, and all the other people in the list somehow share and that it seeks to get Christians and only Christians into all the influential positions in secular society. Those who are perpetuating this lie are conspiracy theorists, and it strikes me as irrational and contrary to the evidence as Birtherism and Trutherism.

Dominionismism is of the same sort, except for one thing. Terry Gross (most recently here but see also here) and Diane Rehm (e.g. here) of NPR regularly have these people on their shows and let them spew forth this historically inaccurate and slanderous nonsense with hardly a critical comment or request for genuine support, and then they treat it as a big secret conspiracy that no one is interested in investigating. A recent article in The New Yorker (see Ryan Lizza's hit piece on Michele Bachmann) presents this conspiracy theory as investigative reporting. Dominionismism has mainstream support among influential purveyors of information. That's the big difference between it and Birtherism and Trutherism, because prominent people have raised suggestions along Birtherist and Trutherist lines, and the mainstream media just laughs at them. Just look at how Donald Trump was treated by Fox News when he was spouting off questions suggestive of the Birther thesis. They gave him time on their shows, as they probably should do with someone of his influence claiming to run for the presidency, but it was obvious that no one who actually worked for the network thought what he was saying had anything to it.

There are figures in the Dominionismist movement who are more careful, for example Chip Berlet (and he says the work of Sara Diamond is too, but I can't testify to that, and it's obvious to me that many using her work are not very careful). Even so, some of what he says strikes me as still very problematic. For one thing, he sees Sarah Palin as a dominionist [sic]. I've seen no evidence that Palin thinks Christians and only Christians should occupy every position in secular society. I have seen evidence that she thinks it's good for Christians to seek office and to transform society for the better, with what's better determined in part (and for all I know only in part, for all I've seen) by what can be gleaned from the Bible. He thinks there's this large class of people who think the creation mandate given to Adam and Eve to have dominion over the planet is really about Christians having dominion over everything rather than the far more common (and far more plausible) interpretation that we all have an obligation to be stewards over God's creation, and it's just those with the right views who are doing so responsibly (and Christians should think their views are more in line with what's right, just as any other group would think their views are more in line with what's right, or else they obviously wouldn't happen to have those views but would have other views). Dominionismists would do well to look at Bertlet's chart showing views along the continuum between Triumphalism and Christian Reconstructionism, and I would inform them that people like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry are at most Triumphalists, as far as I can tell, and certainly not in the non-existent camp of Dominionists [sic] as Diamond defines the term.

I should also note a massive misuse of the term "Dominion Theology". There is actually a view called Dominion Theology, but it has nothing to do with these issues. It's associated with the Vineyard third-wave Pentecostalism and people like John Wimber and C. Peter Wagner, who see Christians' duty as not taking the government and secular institutions back from secular society but as taking the world back from Satan's control, which has been the reigning order since the fall. Christians have the right and authority, according to this view, to exercise dominion over demons and reclaim God's authority over the fallen world by prayer and confident assertion of God's reign. People who practice Wagner's methods will walk around cities proclaiming that God has reclaimed this and will speak to demons declaring them no longer to have dominion over the city. This, as should be obvious to anyone thinking about it, is such a clearly distinct phenomenon from anything to do with the relation between Christians and the government that it's amazing not only that they've been so often confused but that so many people have now attached the name of their theology to the non-existent Dominionism [sic] that it's largely taken over Google's searches for the term. It's actually hard to find any references to actual Dominion Theology by searching for that expression, and the first one I turned up was someone confusing them as a wing of Dominionism [sic] (one of three wings, according to that site, and Rick Warren has somehow managed to unite the three, as if that could make any sense; Warren is well-known as a political progressive/liberal except for some socially-conservative views).

[cross-posted at Evangel]

The usual expectation of the Justice Department when a federal law is being challenged in court is to defend the law, as long as some good-faith argument can be mustered in its defense, even if the administration in power at the moment disagrees with the law on policy grounds. The Obama Administration has chosen not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a law that it had been defending with what it had taken to be good-faith arguments for most of the Obama presidency.

The president's change of heart on this issue isn't just a question of consistency between his past statements (including what he ran his campaign on) and his current views, because it's possible to change your mind on important issues. It also isn't just about whether the solicitor general always has to defend policies that the sitting president disagrees with. There are plenty of cases of other presidents choosing not to defend laws that are challenged in court.

What especially worries me about this current move is that there are people on both sides of the issue who do have good-faith arguments. They each believe there are convincing arguments. The Obama Administration acknowledged this by presenting those arguments. They seem to have gotten tired of offering arguments they no longer agree with (on the more charitable explanation: I would say "or have been politically pressured to abandon" on the less charitable explanation). Barack Obama was convinced enough by such arguments, if we take him to be remotely honest, that he defended the law during his run for the White House. He directed his solicitor general, who is now his second Supreme Court appointee, to defend the law in the courts. But if he's supposed to defend the law unless he thinks there are no good-faith arguments for it, that means he implicitly has indicated that he (no longer?) thinks there are good faith arguments for it.

I've been thinking about the implications of this, in light of one of the key themes that got him elected. He talks about putting yourself in the shoes of your political opponent, thinking how they think, coming to understand them so that you don't simply present them as evil incarnate. They differ from you on policy matters, but it's often based on core values that we all share, just applied differently (and in your own view incorrectly). In other words, he spends quite a lot of energy calling on people to do politics differently, in a way that recognizes they have good-faith arguments for their positions.

Now this isn't the first place where I see a conflict between that message, which is a major theme of his book The Audacity of Hope, and how he actually describes his political opponents when disagreeing with them, which strikes me as not abiding by his own advice. I could give numerous examples from that very book, but I don't have a hard copy from the library yet, so I'll have to come back to that at another time. (But see my discussions of his comments about Bush's Supreme Court picks for a clear example of this.)

I have to wonder if this is another example. By implicitly indicating that he doesn't think there are good-faith arguments for DOMA, is he therefore tarring all proponents of DOMA, including every member of Congress who voted for it (and it was a popular bill on the Democratic side) with having no good-faith arguments for the bill? They were all supporting it disingenuously, in other words. What would motivate them to support it if they had no good-faith reasons to support the law in principle? Presumably corruption, right? Is he asserting that of all supporters of DOMA, including the Senator Obama who ran for president in 2008 and succeeded in getting elected, who went on to instruct his Solicitor General Elena Kagan to defend the law with arguments he was claiming were good-faith arguments? The arguments often given about his inconsistency on this issue are too simplistic, given that people really can change their minds in good faith. Perhaps he has (though I admit some skepticism). But I'm not sure he can consistently claim that there's no good-faith argument without thereby admitting deception and political opportunism on his own part.

The only way out of this argument I can see is if he's going to insist that you can think there are good-faith arguments for a position but still refuse to defend it. But that does go against significant tradition, and it has him falling afoul of another problem he raises in his book, and that's the biggest criticism he thinks he has of the Republicans under Bush. He accuses them of being unwilling to abide by how things have traditionally been done. Some issues he picks on involve issues where he sees a constitutional violation. (On many of those issues, I suspect he's changed his mind and simply continued the Bush policy, since he mostly had in mind war on terrorism issues, where his policies haven't different much from Bush's.) One place he applies this is to the so-called "nuclear option" issue in the Senate, where he thought they should continue to allow the filibuster in judicial nominations, in part because it's a longstanding tradition. Now he's going against a significant tradition, if he thinks there are good-faith arguments, anyway.

So either way, he's going against a major theme in his book.

Imposing Religion

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There are several different things someone might mean when they speak of imposing religious beliefs on those who don't hold them. There are two different axes to pay attention to. One is what is meant by "imposing", and the other is what is meant by "religion".

On the first axis, what is meant by "imposing", I can think of a number of things in decreasing order of severity:

1. Forcing people with threat of force or imprisonment
2. Coercing people by some manner less severe than force or threat of imprisonment (e.g. giving them incentives like a right to vote, to drive, to hold an independent job) that most Americans consider rights or close enough to it
3. Incentivizing by some manner less severe than coercion (e.g. government influencing social acceptance, giving tax credits or deductions, criminal penalties of smaller sort such as a fine)
4. Calling on people to change their mind or behavior, perhaps with strenuous argumentation
5. Explaining one's attitude on the issue
6. Simply stating what one's view happens to be

On the second axis, what is meant by "religion", I can again think of a number of things, in decreasing order of centrality to religion:
A. espousing a statement of faith or unfaith (that they might not actually agree with)
B. engaging in certain behavior that is motivated (on the part of those instituting the policy) merely by religious beliefs and not by any attempt at rational argument
C. engaging in certain behavior that is motivated (on the part of those instituting the policy) in part by religious beliefs but also by some attempt at rational argument, even if it's not a strong argument
D. engaging in certain behavior that is motivated (on the part of those instituting the policy) in part by religious beliefs but is held by most who hold it (even if controversially) by rationally-motivated arguments that, while disputed, at least are philosophically-driven in addition to or, for some, without the religious motivation
E. engaging in certain behavior that is motivated (on the part of those instituting the policy) in part by religious beliefs but is commonly held by most people, and for most people there is motivation that in their minds is on grounds entirely independent of religion

There are those who insist that even stating one's religious views counts as imposing them in an improper way, never mind preaching them. Fortunately, in the United States even 4A is protected speech by the first amendment. I'm not about to argue for 1 either, so we're really looking at 2 and 3. In the history of the world, we've certainly seen pseudo-conversions coerced at swordpoint or recantations of religious beliefs at the threat of martyrdom. In comparison with that, the idea that one is imposing one's religion merely by trying to make a case for it seems absurd. It's similar to the War on Christmas people complaining of Christians being persecuted in the United States just because schools are refusing to sing Jingle Bells in schools on the ground that the song is tied to a religious holiday. (In my experience, schools nowadays don't reduce Christian content at Christmas but simply include it alongside religious content for other religions' holidays too, so this complaint is getting even more stale than it was when I was younger, when such songs might have been excluded on the strange claim that they're somehow religious).

We do have some laws that are all the way down to 1E or sometimes 1D, however. For example, same-sex sodomy laws, bans on selling contraceptives, and bans on teaching evolution (all deemed unconstitutional now) were often religiously-motivated but did include arguments, often arguments widely accepted at the time, that didn't rely on religious premises. Evolution was thought not to be as well-supported as its proponents think. Creation science has insisted that evolution is just bad science. This isn't about whether their arguments are good but about what kind of arguments they are. Similarly, bans on same-sex sodomy were justified more by disgust at such acts than any biblical prohibition on them, and the Connecticut ban on selling contraceptives was supported by an argument about population control.

But there remain some laws at level 1E or 1D and some attempts at instituting laws at this level. Sodomy laws are deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court since 2004, but incest laws vary from state to state. It's not criminal in Rhode Island to have sex with a close relative, but you can't marry them unless you're Jewish (to allow for Levirate customs, I assume). In Ohio it's criminal to have sex with your children, but only the parents are criminal even if the children are adults. But in Massachusetts you can get 20 years in prison for having sex with your adult sibling, even if one of the two parties is demonstrably infertile or if it's a same-sex act, in either case removing any chance of genetic problems with offspring. Such a law is, as far as the courts have so far indicated, perfectly constitutional. Yet I can think of no easy argument against it unless you rely on beliefs that are either very controversial and often supported by religion or simply feelings of disgust. Arguments against pornography aren't all religious (see the feminist arguments), but we make distributing or producing certain kinds of pornography illegal in part because a lot of people have religious objections to it. (But I should say that this is clearly 1E and not 1D, since almost all religious people who object to pornography would agree with just about the entire feminist case against pornography, despite feminist claims to the contrary.)

In fact, 1E prohibitions occur all the time. Laws against murder or robbery fit into this category. People certainly have religious reasons for thinking such acts are wrong and ought to be given severe penalties. But the arguments for them are widely accepted by religious and non-religious people, and the secularly-accessible arguments are usually present even for religious people.

Coercion of sorts 2 and 3 is a little more commonly thought of as imposing religion, and there are some ways that can occur today in the United States with legal sanction (although for letters further down the list than happens with Islam). You're not going to find 2A or 3A in the U.S. today, but you will find both in Islamic countries. Most debates in the political context of the U.S. about imposing religion aren't even about 2B or 3B. The kinds of things that get labeled as Taliban-like behavior in the U.S. aren't about matters that have purely religious support. They at least make an attempt at rational argumentation. But that's also true of the Islamic laws requiring women to wear veils or prohibiting girls from being educated in any formal way. The supposed rational argumentation in both cases is extremely weak and based on false views of the capabilities of women or false priorities, elevating the concern with provoking male lust to a point where it overcomes eminently reasonable considerations about freedom in how women might dress and conduct themselves in public. Even the most stringent Christian concerns about modesty in women's dress are going to allow for much more freedom than you'll find in many Islamic prohibitions on female dress.

I think most cases I'm aware of on level 2 are actually all the way down to 2E. I'm thinking of laws that prohibit minority religious behavior, such as requiring a photo ID for a driver's license (which some orthodox Jews resist and even some Muslims, or like the Florida law requiring a photo ID not to have a face covered too much, which some Muslim women won't do). The attempted ban on peyote even in Native American religious ceremonies would have fallen into this category, but Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Scalia, overturned that. Banning certain kinds of political protests that someone might have religious reasons for insisting on doing, e.g. perhaps an abortion protest of a certain nature, amounts to a 2C imposition.

Level 3C is much more fair game for a lot of issues in the U.S. We don't imprison people for much at level C, but we do incentivize religious charitable giving by giving tax deductions, and we recognize (so far) a privileged position for opposite-sex unions to be called marriage at the federal level and in most states. That gives government sanction for something with some secular arguments but also based on religious motivation for many supporters of that policy, and it has an effect of cultural sanction or respect for certain behavior over other behavior. If we ban a certain religious act but without criminal penalty other than a fine, that would fall under 3C. There are religious and non-religious arguments for abortion protests that cross the line into illegality to a point of a fine but not to the point of imprisonment.

In the UK and Canada in the last couple years, pastors have been carted off to prison for preaching that same-sex sexual acts are immoral. This isn't quite an expectation of having a certain view, but it's prohibiting the speaking of such a view. It's a level 1 prohibition of level 6 behavior. Americans rightly deride such policies as contrary the value of debate as a basic, fundamental component of civil society. Speech codes that prohibit even stating your religious views if such views are considered offensive to someone, while indisputably unconstitutional in the United States, somehow manage to appear at most universities anyway. Even 4A is uncontroversially protected speech under the first amendment, unless it takes it to a level of actually provoking people to a fight or to the level of panic that would result by yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. Yet I've encountered a number of people who have considered it a clear case of immorally imposing one's religion, as if trying to persuade someone of a view you happen to find true is somehow wrong. Some take it to a further extreme, considering even the reporting of your view to be inappropriate when it's a controversial view that some might find offensive. Merely indicating that one believes Jews who don't accept Christ as the Messiah will go to hell would, to some people's mind, count as imposing one's religion in an immoral way. I find such an analysis so unhealthy that I almost consider it undeserving of a reply. But if pressed I would insist on the value of philosophical debate, the importance of understanding those who disagree with you, and the moral importance to certain religions of attempting to win people over to something they consider very urgent for all humanity, which prevents them from remaining silent if they're taking their own religion seriously.

What's the moral of the story? Mostly what motivated me to work through all this is that I think we should be wary of anyone who makes blanket statements about imposing religion, whether moral statements or simply factual claims that it has happened. It should be pretty clear from all this that it's never clear what people mean by that unless the specify, and the debate that might ensure once they do specify is probably worth having. Most people who make such comments haven't thought them through and could benefit from some effort to explore precisely what they mean. The term "imposing religion" is at this point so unhelpful as to be worth avoiding whenever we can, and in its place let's clarify the particular elements that we're concerned about, since the different items in both lists above certainly do involve different moral considerations.

Pro-choicers regularly accuse pro-lifers of favoring policies that increase abortions by (a) being one-issue voters who care only about laws restricting abortion (and politicians who will appoint, confirm, or be judges who will move things back in a direction that allows more of such restrictions), (b) actively opposing laws and policies that will decrease the number of abortions, or (c) promoting policies that will actually increase the number of unwanted pregnancies.

I'm sure there are people who are inconsistent in applying their pro-life principles by doing such things, but there are plenty of unfair ways to make such arguments, particularly when they ignore other beliefs held by many pro-life people that make their position fully consistent.

For example, contraception decreases the number of unwanted pregnancies, it is argued, and therefore pro-lifers who want to decrease the number of abortions ought to promote contraception. So the charge is that pro-lifers who oppose contraception are thus inconsistent.

It doesn't take much reflection to see that this argument is patently unfair to some pro-lifers. Consider the following proposal. Let's kill everyone on the planet. That would surely decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies. But no pro-lifer would advocate it, because it would be wrong to decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies by using such a method. Now no one is offering that proposal, but consider the proposal in question. The suggestion is that by promoting contraception we would decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies, and therefore we would decrease the number of abortions. You might think that this proposal is much better than simply killing everyone on the planet, which would also produce that same goal. In fact, it is. I'd be shocked to find anyone, pro-life or not, who wouldn't agree. But a proposal doesn't have to be as bad as killing everyone on the planet to be immoral, and at least one possible view would still consistently hold to pro-life views on abortion and anti-contraception views.

Some pro-lifers are simply opposed to contraception in principle. They think it's immoral. They surely don't think it's as immoral as wiping out all human life. But they do think it would be wrong to participate in it or promote it, and supporting policies that attempt to get more people to use contraception would indeed participate in and promote contraception. To such a person, it doesn't matter if they are opposing a policy that would decrease unwanted pregnancies. Decreasing unwanted pregnancies is a good thing, since it removes the occasion in which some people will do something immoral. But we shouldn't do something immoral ourselves in order to remove the situation where someone else will be tempted to do something immoral. So such a person is consistent with pro-life principles while opposing policies that promote contraception, and it's extremely unfair to such a person's actual views to accuse them of inconsistency before exploring what views they might have for resisting the promotion of contraception.

Similarly, if someone thinks it's immoral to promote economic policies that will put more people in better situations and thus remove some of the concerns that lead to abortions, then they should oppose those policies. Suppose the person is a pro-life economic libertarian of an extreme enough sort that they think welfare amounts to stealing, for example. They won't see the good consequences of welfare for those who are tempted to have abortions as good enough to overcome the wrongness of stealing from one group of people to help others. Preventing one bad situation that prevents a temptation for an immoral act is surely a good thing, but if it means adopting an economic policy that one considers immoral, it might eliminate that method, depending on what moral theory we're working with and how one sorts through potentially conflicting moral principles.

Now the argument is much better when directed against someone who doesn't see the policy in question as being intrinsically wrong but just sees it as a bad idea. Most economic conservatives don't oppose welfare programs at any level. Many pro-lifers don't oppose contraception as intrinsically wrong. In the first case, they have to weigh the bad consequences they expect from an economic policy they disagree with against the bad consequences they should expect if something isn't done to change the unwanted pregnancy rate. A lot more factors come into play here, such as which methods will be most effective at reducing unwanted pregnancies, which methods will have better consequences in other respects, how much energy the person is already putting into attempts that they don't see as having bad consequences, and how effective restrictive laws will be as compared with simply changing people's circumstances.

What about the contraceptive issue with those who don't see contraception as intrinsically wrong? A lot of pro-lifers who don't have a problem with contraception in principle will still be extremely hesitant about efforts to promote it among teenagers (or among the unmarried in general, depending on their views about sexual morality). One reason for this hesitation, I think, is that they see such promotion as endorsement of teenage sex (or unmarried sex), and they would see that as participating in something they shouldn't. Or it might be thought of in terms of promotion of something one wants not to promote. Then the wrongness of promoting something wrong or participating in something wrong might be decisive for someone, and we don't have an inconsistent position after all.

Then there might also be bad consequences to consider. I've seen claims that promoting contraception doesn't decrease unwanted pregnancies but actually decreases them. I've never looked at the details of studies on the subject, but I think the explanation for why this might be is that people who most (but not all) of the time use contraception are more likely to feel safer in avoiding contraception than without contraception-promotion, in which case they might have been more willing to abstain from sex than to engage in contracepted-sex most (but not all) of the time. Now it doesn't actually matter to my argument whether these claims are true. Perhaps this effect isn't very strong, and the effect of promoting contraception in preventing pregnancies is much stronger. What matters is that some people believe this claim to be true, and it's not totally unreasonable, even if a closer look at facts might disabuse someone of it (if in fact it's wrong, which I'm not taking a stand on one way or the other). That means they have a consistent position of why they think the effects of contraception-promotion do not actually decrease unwanted pregnancies, and thus they can consistently hold to pro-life principles and want to reduce unwanted pregnancies without wanting to promote contraception.

I recently listened to a Bloggingheads TV diavlog between Sarah Posner and Michael Dougherty, and along the way one of them (I believe Dougherty) mentioned an argument that I don't think I've ever heard before. Apparently some people have argued against promoting contraceptives because they think such efforts will lead to a bad consequence, not just in other areas, but one that has a direct impact on abortion. It may well be, as far as this argument goes, that promoting contraception will decrease the number of unexpected pregnancies, i.e. the number of pregnancies that were not wanted before they occurred. But emphasizing contraception might at the same time reinforce the sense that pregnancy is a bad thing worth avoiding. Of those unexpected pregnancies, such an increased sense of pregnancy as bad might increase the number of unexpected pregnancies been seen as unwanted. That might then increase the number of abortions resulting from unexpected pregnancies, even if the number of unexpected pregnancies goes down because of the contraception. You'd then have to see if it's possible to figure out which effect would be more significant, and my suspicion is that such a task would be very difficult, if not impossible, which might lead one toward caution about a policy that might have a good effect but might also have a bad effect. That would then contribute toward explaining the hesitation from some pro-lifers with respect to policies that promote contraception.

There are plenty of other things that might come to play here, but this should give enough sense that it doesn't automatically follow from pro-life convictions that one ought to favor policies promoting contraception or supporting economic policies that might have the effect of helping more women at risk for unwanted pregnancies to have more economically-viable situations where they'd be less tempted to have an abortion. Perhaps when all is said and done, the best pro-life policy is to oppose abortion and favor restricting it while also promoting contraception. Provided you don't think contraception is intrinsically immoral, that's going to depend on a number of other factors, including some empirical data that I'm not sure is readily available in an indisputable form. But it's not an automatic implication of pro-life principles, and how people settle those other issues will affect what they might consistently say about efforts to promote contraception. Similarly, it's certainly possible that pro-lifers ought to support some given effort to increase the quality of life of those who might be at risk for having an abortion. But whether they should consistently do so will depend quite a bit both on their other views and on empirical data that isn't easily available to most people and may, frankly, not even exist in any understandable form.

Obama's Use of Scripture

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John Hobbins has an interesting analysis of President Obama's use of scripture in his Tucson speech.

I agree with him that the use of Job is well-placed, at least on one interpretation of Job. The quotation comes from chapter 30, where Job is giving his final arguments after his "friends" have finished their attacks against him. It comes before Elihu's speech, were Elihu (rightly or wrongly) condemns much of what Job says in the preceding chapters, including chapter 30. On one interpretation, Job is righteous not just before his speeches in the book but in everything he says the entire book, and Elihu just repeats what the "friends" had said but without some of the uncharitable comments they make about Job's own words and without accusing him of particular things without evidence. On another interpretation, Job goes a bit overboard in his description of evil occurring from God's hand, and Elihu corrects him. If the former interpretation is correct, then President Obama has wisely picked a description of the evil that occurs in the world and its appearance to us without knowing the full context. If the latter interpretation is correct, then he's picked a bit from one of Job's over-the-top speeches that ignore the goodness of God in working through the bad things that occur in the world.

It's the Psalm 46 quote that gets John excited, though. He says Obama has masterfully taken the words of that psalm and applied them in a pre-critical, figural way that is very useful in civic religion. I wouldn't have put it that way. I'm not sure Obama has taken the words and applied them at all, in fact. He simply quotes a verse from the psalm and then moves on, leaving it to everyone hearing or reading his words to figure out what he might mean by it.

Read the text of his speech. He speaks of faith that Rep. Giffords will pull through and then quotes the psalm:

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, 
the holy place where the Most High dwells. 
God is within her, she will not fall; 
God will help her at break of day.

He then goes on to speak of what happened in Tucson, as if the psalm quotation hadn't been there at all. I'm not remotely sure what President Obama even means to be saying by quoting this psalm in his speech. He doesn't explain it at all. He doesn't later apply it to this case. None of the language of the psalm appears anywhere else in the speech. He just reads a verse out of context and then changes the subject. It's like a bad sermon, where the preacher quotes a text and then just goes on to say whatever comes to mind, as if the text has nothing to do with the point of the sermon, there in order to make it sound remotely biblical.

His intent behind including this psalm can be taken in a number of ways, if we just go by the speech itself. He could be taking the reference of the City of God the way Augustine took it, implying that she is a Christian and therefore that the promises of the psalm can be applied to her. The river here, as intended in the psalm, would be God's means of taking care of his people. If so, and if she really is a Christian, I would have no problem with Christian application of the psalm in such a way. It would be taking the greater canonical themes and applying them in this psalm. But I have no reason to think Obama would restrict this psalm to Christians, given his pluralistic approach to religion.

He could be taking the city of God to be the United States, and the river would be God's means of taking care of the people of the United States. This is how I would most naturally take the use of this passage in a civic religion context. I'd be a little surprised if Obama thought there was some special relationship between God and the United States, though. But a lot of fans of civic religion would take it this way. This would be faithful to how the psalm is using this language within itself, but it would be getting the referent wrong (and there's no argument from later scripture for doing so, as there is in the Christian interpretation above).

One thing I would not conclude from his use of the psalm, however, is that he is identifying the river with Giffords, as John does in his post. It's so strongly at odds with what the psalm is doing that it would certainly not appear to me to be a charitable interpretation. I don't generally like to attribute such poor reading skills to an intelligent person like President Obama. I'm curious why John is taking him to be doing that. I know the first two interpretations are pretty unlikely unless he's just trying deliberately to be unclear and to have people take it in many different ways as they may be inclined (I'm not sure he's deliberately this way; he just is this way because of his relativistic proclivities, I would guess). But why is the river Giffords rather than Congress, the American people, Obama himself, or even Dick Cheney? There's nothing in the speech that gives a hint as to what he thinks the river is, what he thinks the city of God is, or what he thinks the holy place where God dwells is.

I have to conclude that Obama likes the metaphor but that he has given us no particular way of taking it, whether that's deliberate for relativistic reasons (something I wouldn't put past him) or simply because he has no idea that a metaphor needs to be given a referent in the context in some way (which would just be a sign of bad speech-writing skills). In neither case would I call it a "logical and audacious" transition. It's simply a bad transition, with no sense at all of what he's doing with it and no reason given for why it's even there.

It's no surprise to me that so many people had such high hopes for this president but were sorely disappointed once he had to start governing. He was the empty metaphor himself, standing for whatever the voters wanted to see in him, and when you include all the good anyone might want in a president, including several incompatible goals and hopes, there's no way to live up to it. He's doing the same thing here. I expect a number of other analyses from people who end up with completely different interpretation's from John's, all of them confident that they got him right and with no suggestion of any other ways of taking him. But perhaps that's, in a way, getting Obama right, if indeed his intent is to be so open-ended that people will take what they will (and I find that as likely as the alternative).

Obama the Leopard King

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Cousin Danny found some guy arguing that President Obama is the leopard king of Daniel 7, with the especially convincing argument that leopards have spots of different colors, and thus they can easily symbolize someone of mixed race.

Obama's first book contains much interesting analysis of race. I took down several pages-long quotations from the library's copy in case I ever want to refer to them (since I don't own a copy and don't expect to get around to trying to find a used one anytime soon). His famous speech on race that distanced himself from his spiritual role model Jeremiah Wright also had a lot of worthwhile things to say about race. It's one of the few issues where I think he's more on the right track than not, and his background has allowed him to see things that a lot of people who are not from a mixed background will not be well-placed to notice.

Nevertheless, even he failed to latch onto the insights in the videos Danny linked to. But this makes great sense of his next-day comments on the results of the 2010 election. This explains pretty well why he prefers to read the election as a failure to explain to the ignorant voters why his policies are good, rather than admitting that so many Americans might just disagree with him on policy matters while actually being informed. But, you know, the leopard king can't easily change his spots...

Update 11/10/10: There really are a few interesting things in the second video. I hadn't noticed all of them initially.

1. This guy is a prophet, and he's not claiming that you can get all this from just reading the Bible. He's offering new revelation that this is Obama. So there's no complaining that he's speculating. He's giving a new revelation, just one that also involves the claim that no other country and leader combination best fits the leopard.

2. Keep in mind that he's a prophet, and he's revealing God's word to us in our day in addition to the scriptures. One of his arguments is that the four branches of the military and the four branches of the federal government are the four wings and four heads, and no other country has the four wings and four branches like the U.S. does today. So we should take this as divine fiat that there are now four branches of the government (the House, Senate, executive, and judiciary) as opposed to the three as declared in the Constitution (legislative, executive, and judiciary). Keep in mind that God can decree the Constitution invalid in terms of what it declares to be true of the United States government that it established, so this is entirely legitimate. It's just a huge surprise to me, and it shows that this revelation could only have come directly from God by means of a prophet like him. No one who knows just how the U.S. government works who reads this text could possibly have thought this interpretation even consistent with what Daniel 7 says and what the Constitution declares about the branches of government. We do need a prophet to know these things. So I stand corrected. The Constitution has been amended by a prophet by a method unknown to the Constitution itself.

3. Notice how he points out that Obama is the leopard as the leader of the U.S. with arguments both about the U.S. itself and Obama its leader. The leopard has skin that's both black and white, which reflects the racial makeup of the United States. Obama also has skin that's both black and white. Yes, it's not race-mixing in the sense that he is both black and white, which is what I was originally taking this to be, which would be yet another piece of evidence for my claim that the one-drop rule is on its way out, at least as applied in certain contexts. No, he says Obama's skin itself is both black and white, in the same sense at the same time. So I guess God can declare contradictions to be true after all, and his prophet is informing us of one particular contradiction that God has now declared to be true of our president. His skin is both black and white.

4. Read the comments on YouTube. You will discover a fascinating argument there against this prophet's claims. Obama can't the be leopard, because it's biologically impossible. Leopards are female, and Obama is male. The most amazing thing about that comment? No one even responded to it, and there are plenty of responses by the author of this video to claims made against him. Does this mean that he's finally encountered an argument that's making him reconsider his view? This is a pretty convincing reason not to accept the view, after all. Until I saw that, I was fully on board, but now I'm not so sure.

I received an email with the title, "How You Can Tell Obama is Not a Socialist". The basic argument is that President Obama didn't implement full-blown government ownership of the banks and industries relevant to the economic problems that it has been calling a crisis. A true socialist, so goes the argument, would have seized the opportunity to, you know, implement socialism or something. A few instances of the government seizing control of something that's belonging to the private sector, trying to control your media appearances, and painting the opposition media as illegitimate nevertheless don't amount to taking over industry and the media entirely. So President Obama isn't really a socialist.

There's certainly something to the argument in this email, but it's not as straightforward as that, and there are ways that I think it's fair to describe President Obama's views as socialist.

1. A committed socialist might think we should engage pragmatically in incremental steps to reach an eventual socialist goal. If President Obama has a socialist theory of justice (as I think he does) and a pragmatic and incrementalist approach to realizing it (as I also think he does), then he's picking his battles so he can do as much as he can to move in that direction without trying to accomplish too much in a way that will end up just frustrating his final goals too much. So this at most shows that he's at most a pragmatic, incrementalist socialist. But hardly anyone who is informed and honest is claiming that he's more than that, and lots of people are claiming exactly that.

2. There are also distinguishable components of socialism. President Obama might have a socialist theory of justice in terms of what counts as a just, equal world without having a socialist view of who should own property or the means of production. I'm not sure what his view is about the ideal government and ownership of the means of production. So I don't know if he's a socialist in that sense, although at most he'd be a pragmatist, incrementalist socialist about such matters. But he could be completely a capitalist about those issues and be a socialist about justice in thinking there's a moral imperative to equalize pay and benefits of employees to a point where complete equalization is an eventual goal. That's a socialist theory of justice, and the way he uses the term 'just' makes the most sense if he thinks merely unfair or unequal distribution is unjust (as opposed to saying that it's unjust to implement policies or practices that ensure such unequal distribution, which a much greater number of people would agree with). Since he does seem, to my mind, to hold such a view, I do think he's working from a socialist theory of justice.

Surely there's a sense in which Obama isn't a socialist, but there's also a sense in which he arguably might well be.

When Sharron Angle won the GOP Senate nomination to run against Harry Reid, the tea party movement rejoiced. Then the post-primary polls came in. Instead of the pre-primary sense that Reid would no longer be a senator as of January, it looked as if he'd hold his own against that particular candidate. I think the polls are still bearing that out, although that sort of thing can change in a few months. The tea party movement endorsed someone who may well be incapable of beating Harry Reid, whose popularity is very low right now, even in a very Republican year.

The Arizona primary produced several similar situations. Consider Scott Elliott's preview of four House GOP primary races on Monday (the primaries were held on Tuesday).

AZ-1: "Ann Kilpatrick is one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the country" but "If Dr. Gosar wins, however, there will be some from the "McCain/Establishment" side that vote against him in November out of anger. In that case, we'll have to see whether their votes will be enough to cost him the victory." Gosar won.

AZ-3: "Ben Quayle has never had any major support from any Arizona politicians. He has sold himself as the Tea Party candidate. A strong front-runner at one point, Qualye has fallen sharply after several major debacles (i.e. borrowing kids for paid media photos, admitting to writing posts for a female-bashing website) .... should Quayle win this race, his baggage will make it hard for him to keep conservative Democrat and father-of-five, John Hulburd from taking this one for the Democrats." Quayle won.

AZ-5: "David Schweikert has ran for office twice before and lost, and Susan Bitters Smith was the 2008 nominee that Mitchell easily defeated.... If either of these candidates wins the primary, it's not likely they can unseat Mitchell." Schweikert won.

AZ-8: "Kelly was an early favorite, and attempted to define Paton as the "establishment" Republican. However, Paton's record as a legislator proved him to be a strong conservative, who continually takes on the governor and the leadership of both parties. The race between Kelly and Paton is very close, and either could win the primary. However, while Paton almost certainly will defeat embattled Democrat incumbent Gabrielle Giffords in November, Kelly may have a tougher time. He'll have to prove he's about more than just border security." Kelly won.

Now not all of these are tea party victories over establishment or moderate opponents (and the Florida primaries the same day had several GOP winners who would be easier winners in November than their opponents). But all of them were the choice Scott predicted would make it harder for Republicans to win the seat, and I think the tea party movement played a big role in the win of at least three of the four. It's clear that the tea party movement, while helping Republicans regain some ground against Democrats, may also prevent them from gaining as much as they otherwise might.

Matt Skene has a very thoughtful post on the intersection of issues related to rights and obligations and recent health care debates. I disagree with a number of Matt's assumptions. I think we do have positive obligations, and I do think they simply are there without our taking them on. I don't think rights determine obligations but the other way around. Perhaps most salient, I don't think we can distinguish between obligations and moral goodness. I think we simply have an obligation to do what's morally best (and yes, I know that that means that pretty much everyone on this planet is thoroughly immoral, but that's not exactly a new view; it's historic Christian doctrine).

But I think there's a lot worth thinking about in Matt's post. His general approach is libertarian. He starts with natural negative rights and argues for no positive rights. In other words, certain things are wrong to do to me, because I have a right for you not to do them, but I have no rights for you to do positively good things on my behalf, just for you not to do bad things to me. But such a view doesn't imply that there aren't moral reasons to do positive things on behalf of other people.

In particular, there are reasons why it might be the morally best thing to do to help those who are less fortunate to obtain good medical care. Matt doesn't think I have an obligation to alleviate the suffering of people I have no other connection with, but he does think it's morally good to do so. It's also self-interestedly good for me to develop the character traits that such acts help develop in me. He's open to, but not convinced by, the argument that it would be in our best interests to contract with one another to institute such obligations by common consent, as we do with building highways. It depends on whether we'd all be better off with it.

Matt suggests an interesting possibility, though. You can donate money to your utility company to offset the costs of low-income utility customers. Presumably this goes to heating assistance aid, which is given to recipients of food stamps once a year and paid directly to the utility company. I'm not sure how else the utility companies would know who counts as low-income. But if we did a similar thing with insurance companies, there might be enough money from those who, like progressives on this issue, think they have an obligation to pay for others' insurance and from some of those who, like Matt, think it's a morally good thing to do. Could that cover everything Medicaid and other public health insurance does? It's worth seeing how much it covers.

I tend to doubt it, since most people who think the government should tax us more to pay for benefits to low-income people are not inclined to give money when it's voluntary (consider our current president as a prime example), but maybe enough people who don't share such views will give the money voluntarily while resisting it when it's government-controlled (as, apparently, Dick Cheney does with a huge percentage of his income). But it's being done with utilities. Why not try it with health insurance and see where it goes? There might even be enough votes in Congress after the 2010 election.

I received a forwarded email about the various ways Obama is increasing taxes on all the people he said he wouldn't raise taxes on, and I'm curious if someone who actually knows something about the details of this stuff could confirm or refute any of it. Some of this is from not getting the Bush tax cuts renewed, but some of it is just plain new taxes, even on some things never taxed before.

According to the email, the inheritance tax, called by its opponents the death tax (which I think is an apt name, because you're basically being taxed for dying and ceding your money to your heirs) is returning in full force. I pretty much knew that already. I didn't know any of the other things (assuming they're true).

I'm not surprised to see the top tax rate increasing from 35% to almost 40%. But increasing the lowest rate from 10% to 15%? Surely there are people who make less than $200,000 a year who are in the lowest tax bracket. In fact, many people in the lowest tax bracket struggle to make ends meet and now are being expected to carry even more of the load, something that goes against the tax philosophy of both the Republican and Democratic parties. If the current president and congressional leadership are behind tax increases for the poor, then it's almost fair to say that Obama and company are inviting the tea party to unseat the Democratic congressional leadership, even aside from his campaign promises not to raise taxes for anyone earning under $200,000 and their repeated insistence that the stimulus package could be paid for without increasing taxes.

Another item is that the so-called marriage penalty is returning. You basically pay higher taxes for being married, in effect, at least if certain conditions are also true, since there are a couple things that in some cases counterbalance the marriage penalty (e.g. if only one spouse receive income, the spouse with no income significantly lowers the taxes of the working spouse, but the conditions where the marriage penalty increases the taxes of a couple are common enough, as I understand it).

The child tax credit is being halved.

Dependent care and adoption tax credits are being removed.

Tax-free accounts for medical care or special needs children will be removed or significantly diminished. The special needs trusts we're planning to get for the boys will be capped off at $2500. According to the email I received, this will be especially cruel and onerous for parents of special needs children. We're in fact pursuing getting accounts for the boys so we can earmark tax-free money that won't count against them for qualifying for SSI.

The alternative minimum tax is expected to kick in for 28 million families next year instead of the 4 million who had to pay it last year. These are people who didn't make enough money to pay any taxes last year. In other words, it's a tax on the poor. I've seen bi-partisan complaints about this tax, insisting that it simply be removed, and yet somehow they've snuck in provisions to expand it sevenfold?

There are lots of tax hikes and removal of tax breaks on small businesses, not the big business Obama keeps saying he wants to "get" (all the while secretly giving them a lot of what they want).

Education deductions from tuition and fees will be removed, and student loan interest deductions are being cut.

You will no longer be able to pay money from and IRA to a charity and have it be a tax deduction.

Health insurance benefits paid by an employer are going to count as income and be taxable. This will be enough to bring many people up a tax bracket, but it will increase the gross income significantly even if it doesn't.

Now this is a forwarded email, so it's almost certain that not everything in it is correct, but I'm curious exactly which things are and which aren't and if I'm interpreting them correctly. I didn't expect he would even have a remote chance of keeping his campaign promises on taxes, and I never thought he intended to anyway, but this goes significantly beyond what I expected. If this is all correct, then President Obama is just asking for people who voted for him to complain that he betrayed them. His chances at another term would be nearly zero if the 2012 election were going to be in April instead of November. This may not turn out to affect the 2010 elections as much, since they conveniently delayed the effect until 2011 for most of these changes.

No Free Milk

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Our kids qualify for free lunch at school, and we submitted the city's form for that at the beginning of the year. They've all been receiving free lunches all year. But Sophia decided a couple weeks ago to start bringing her lunch most days, mostly out of peer pressure because most of her friends do that. (If you don't qualify for free lunch, then it's much less expensive to send one with your child than to pay what the school charges. Have they already established bringing a lunch as a status symbol by kindergarten?)

The first few days, we sent juice with her at her request, but then she decided she wanted to drink the school milk with her lunch brought from home. A couple days ago a note came home saying that the lunch room says she needs to pay for 40 cents for milk. I sent a note back saying the lunch room is wrong, because she qualifies for free lunch and has had no problem all year. The teacher sent another note home saying we need to take it up with the lunch room.

It turns out they won't give her the free milk unless she signs up for a free lunch. Kindergarteners don't go to the cafeteria like the older kids. They have to order a lunch, which gets brought to their room. This was never been an issue for Ethan, because he just eats whatever the school lunch is. It was never an issue for Isaiah, because they take him through the lunch line, and he selects which particular items he wants, which is usually not very much. Then they get out the lunch he brings, and he eats some of those items with whatever (if anything) he wanted from the school lunch. He just brought a lunch in kindergarten anyway, because we didn't want them to have to deal with his pickiness and lactose issues until he could actually go through the line to select items. So Sophia is the first to want to bring a lunch while just drinking the milk from the school in the kindergarten setting, and we're just discovering the policy that she has to waste a whole lunch that she won't eat if she wants to get the free milk that she qualifies for.

Now I know they can make room for kids to get free milk without the lunch, because there are some kids who qualify for free milk but not free lunch. Since she qualifies for free lunch, she apparently can't get the free milk without ordering the whole tray of lunch (and she can't select just the items she wants, because kindergarteners don't go through the lunch line). It turns out one of the staff at the school is happy to eat her lunch when she doesn't want it, so maybe it's not so bad in the end, but this is a truly crazy policy. Why would they insist on a policy that requires a free-lunch student to waste a whole lunch to get the free milk she qualifies for on the days when she's brought her own lunch?

3/5 of a Person

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I recently encountered the claim (that I see often enough) that the U.S. Constitution defined slaves as 3/5 of a person. That claim is actually false. The Constitution did no such thing. What it did is count them as 3/5 toward representation, which was a compromise between those who didn't want them represented and those who thought they should count fully. Here is what the actual wording said:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

The wording actually assumes they are full persons. It distinguishes between the contribution to the census from free persons and the contribution from other persons. It's 3/5 of the number of other persons that gets added to the number of free persons. It's not that slaves are 3/5 of a person.

And for the record, it was those who opposed slavery who didn't want them counted and those who favored it who did, because counting them as full persons would mean more representation in Congress for their states (and yet the voting for those states wouldn't involve the slaves voting, of course, so it's even more influence for the slave-holders if they counted fully).

If we take the constitutional wording to imply that slaves were only viewed as 3/5 of a person, we should also conclude that abolitionists must not have thought slaves were real people, because they wanted them counted as zero, and slaveowners must have thought they were indeed real people, because they wanted them counted as full persons. It's not as if those who favored slavery were defining slaves as less than full persons. It was those who opposed slavery who didn't want their slaves counting toward representation when they didn't have representation who were behind this.

Interestingly, the roles had been reversed for the debate over an amendment on this for the Articles of Confederation, because that debate was over how much in taxes the states had to pay, where the non-slave states wanted slave states to pay more due to their higher population. You would have more success making that argument in this case, because at least the roles line up that way, but that would misunderstand what the issues were.

It had nothing to do with their actual view of the moral status or personhood status of slaves but was about how much political influence states would have, and the Articles of Confederation debate about the same exact issue had been about how much in taxes they would have to pay. Which issue it was about determined which stance each side took, and they completely reversed their positions when the issue changed to make the opposite view favor them. So there's simply no claiming that this was about defining the personhood of slaves or anything. It was simply about how to calculate populations for political results, and those who argued for each side compromised between counting them for certain purposes and not counting them for those purposes by proposing the 3/5 count.

There are plenty of things you might disagree with about how slaves were treated, and it is indeed unfair to be counted at all for representation but not being represented (but we do that with children still). Nevertheless, it's simply false that the Constitution defined them as 3/5 of a person, as if that judgment in particular reveals a view that slaves were viewed as not fully persons. It does no such thing, because it's not about that issue at all. To find evidence that people believed such a thing (and I'm not saying there is no such evidence), it doesn't do to cite what the Constitution says about this issue.

I received an email this week from someone who criticized some conservative responses to a Democratic talking point about the health insurance debate. Politicians often like to draw attention to real examples of people struggling with some issue in order to pull on the heart strings of their constituents, which can (a) serve to illustrate that there really is a problem, a problem their own proposal is supposed to address and (b) provide an emotionally-moving draw to get people to care about it more and perhaps mobilize them to help get it done.

I found an insightful analysis of this sort of thing in Aristotle's treatment of emotions in the Rhetoric. Aristotle points out at one point that this is perfectly fine, in the cases where (a) is basically true. Adding the emotional component is a good thing when you can draw the person in to something they already ought to be doing. On the other hand, when (a) involves some kind of false analogy, misleading facts about the case, or a proposal that wouldn't help or would cause other problems that the case obscures by distracting people away from them, then the emotional element is manipulation rather than illustration, deception toward the wrong result rather than motivation toward moral action.

Where you stand on such a question depends ultimately on whether you agree with President Obama's agenda and the health insurance proposals that Democrats have been putting forward. It's understandable that those who disagree are going to see such emotional appeals as mere emotional appeals that don't have any basis in the facts, and they'll try to find ways that the use of such cases by Democrats involve some kind of error or false statement. So should it be surprising if people like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Michelle Malkin dismiss an example of someone President Obama uses in this way? It shouldn't be, and you shouldn't attribute their motivations to anything other than their opposition to his proposal, because that's the simplest explanation, and it makes perfect sense given their views. This should be so even if you find their views loathsome, as many do.

[I should say, for the record, that I think it's crazy to put Michelle Malkin in the same category as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. She's purely a pundit. They're as much entertainers as political influencers, and they're both offensive in a much greater way than she could ever hope to be. She's much more inclined to focus on arguments than they are, and they're much more inclined to make fun of people.]

The email I received made a very different sort of claim. The author pointed out that the family in this particular case was black. That was the basis of his conclusion that they would not have made the same arguments if the family in question had been white. Actually, what he said is that they wouldn't have criticized a white southern family's situation in the same way. I'm not sure where the evidence for that is, and whether it's true is actually irrelevant. I'm pretty sure all three of them have criticized things this president has said about white people's cases, and there's no reason to think they wouldn't have in this case if it had been a different sort of family.

In any case, it was President Obama who chose this case, not them, and they were responding to it in exactly the way you'd expect given how I described the issue above, when I hadn't yet said anything about race. I have no idea about the details of this case, and I have no idea whether what any of them said is true. But I think it's terribly unreasonable to assume that this is purely because of race when those three have consistently criticized the President's statements about this issue in ways that make it utterly clear and public what their motivation is for such criticism. It has nothing to do with race. It's an ideological disagreement.

I've seen several references to this story that imply or assert that Sarah Palin is a hypocrite for being a very vocal critic of the Canadian health care system, when it turns out she used to go with her family across the border to receive services from Canadian medical professionals instead of those in Alaska. (See here for an example.)

But then I read the article. It turns out there are two huge facts obscured by such an analysis, and they're both whoppers.

1. This wasn't something she did with her family as an adult. This is something her parents did with her until she was six. Yes, people are calling Sarah Palin a hypocrite because of what her parents chose to do, while bringing her along, when she was in kindergarten. I guess if you've run out of ways to attack her involving her own kids, you turn to attacking her for what happened to her when she was a kid herself. I suppose this is hypocrisy by proxy. Find something someone else did that seems to conflict with what Palin is saying, and then call her a hypocrite for someone else doing what she thinks is problematic.

2. They lived during that period in a very rural town near the Canadian border. The closest city was across that border. Most people in very rural towns drive to the nearest city for some of their health care concerns. It just happened that they had to go to another country in this case. If Sarah Palin had lived in that town and taken her own children to Canada, that's perfectly consistent with saying the Canadian health care system is inferior to the American health care system, because no one thinks the American health care system is equally available in every small rural town. The closest thing that's of good enough quality might be in the Canadian system that does things in a way that's less ideal. Being less ideal than the American system is compatible with being the best thing in the area. So there's no inconsistency here anyway.

I noticed an argument here that Juneau, AK is just as close to Skagway, AK where they lived as Whitehorse, YT, where they occasionally sent someone for medical aid in emergencies. So I checked Mapquest. It took 6 hours to get to Juneau and 3 hours to get to Whitehorse.

Then the comments there indicate that you would usually go to Juneau by ferry in those days, and that takes several hours also, where the train ride to Whitehorse is only two. So it does seem that Skagway's closest city is Whitehorse, YT. Juneau has a slightly larger population but not enough to make a huge distinction. They're both big enough cities to have the emergency care facilities that her small town didn't.

Also, the Associated Press interviewed Chuck Heath, Palin's father, about this:

Palin's father said Monday they had little choice, given their location in Skagway. "There was no road out of there at that time," said retired teacher Chuck Heath, reached by phone in Wasilla. "The ferry schedule was very erratic. We had no doctor in Skagway. The plane schedule was very erratic. The winds dictated whether the planes could come in or not."
So it's hard to make the argument that even her parents' choice had anything to do with preferring Canadian health care to American health care, never mind that she herself is somehow a hypocrite because of what her parents did when she was in kindergarten or younger.

Update: There's also the following argument. Palin benefited from Canadian health care, so she shouldn't criticize it, much less fight to prevent the same thing from happening in the U.S. or advocate that Canadians should implement something else.

I sure hope those who support President Obama's proposed changes in U.S. health care don't offer such an argument, because it then makes them hypocrites for benefiting from the American system but then criticizing it. It's simply crazy to say that you can't criticize something you benefited from. Think about all the workers in developing countries who actually benefit from the jobs American corporations outsource but who still work in conditions that it's immoral to expect anyone to work in. It's perfectly fair to think those conditions are bad enough to want to change them, even if you're personally benefiting from them. You might even be grateful for the benefit you've received while pointing out that those who have helped you are still doing something wrong.


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