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[politics] Delusions of truth

I’ve commented before on the explicitly post-truth campaign that Mitt Romney is running. He frequently makes statements that are either untrue on the plain face of the facts (“President Barack Obama has not signed one new free-trade agreement in the past four years.“), or are flatly contradictory to his own statements, often within the same news cycle (“There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.”). These lies get very little play in the mainstream media and none in the conservative commentariat, and apparently suit their purpose very well in appealing to specific audiences Romney is trying to address. His running mate, Paul Ryan, has a similarly elastic relationship with truth and ethics.

I’ve assumed all along this is typical political manipulation, the deeply cynical approach pioneered in its modern form by Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes largely to get the GOP past the political disaster that was Richard Nixon, then perfected by Karl Rove, and maintained on a daily basis by FOX News (which has in the past explicitly sued to protect their right to lie on First Amendment grounds).

However, I am realizing with dawning horror that it’s quite possible that Romney actually believes whatever he’s saying, whenever he’s saying it. That this isn’t cynical opportunism, but an actual detachment from reality. A cognitive issue, or perhaps indescribably terribly judgment.

Certainly over the past decade or so, the conservative movement has made a concerted and self-conscious effort to opt out of the reality-based community. Many American conservatives have convinced themselves that when the facts disagree with their ideology, the facts have been biased or distorted by liberal sources. That’s the relentless daily message of FOX News, for example. And that thinking lies behind everything from evolution denial to climate change denial to supply side economics — all cherished conservative positions with no objective basis in the real world.

When as the conservative movement has done, you demonize and disparage intellectual achievement and the validity of real world data and experience, intellectual consistency really does stop being a concern.

We know from Romney’s own words that he believes things which are incomprehensible to almost all of the rest of us. When he told unemployed Florida voters, ““I should tell my story. … I’m also unemployed,” Romney was equating the experience of having a quarter billion dollars of net worth with being out of work and unable to pay his bills. Or Ann Romney’s comments about their struggles in the early years of their marriage, ““They were not easy years. […] Neither one of us had a job, because Mitt had enough of an investment from stock that we could sell off a little at a time.”

The Romneys are people who believe their experiences of unemployment and financial struggle connect them with everyday Americans. And they seem genuinely offended when others don’t accept that self-assessment. In this, they both are hideously detached from reality. And it’s only small example of what seems to go on in Romney’s mind.

This doesn’t precisely qualify Mitt to be president.

I’m starting to be far more frightened by the idea that Romney believes his own words than I ever was by the callow cynicism I’d assumed in him up until now. Admittedly, the nation will survive his presidency if elected. We survived the charismatically veneered Alzheimer’s of Ronald Reagan, and we survived the dry drunk, entitled incompetence of George W. Bush, after all. But the idea that anyone takes this man with his shallow, inconsistent ideology and cognitively fractured worldview seriously is just frightening. The idea that tens of millions of my fellow citizens take him seriously is just depressing.

We really do get the government we deserve.

[politics] A little thought experiment regarding Romney and taxes

Regardless of your ideology or political beliefs, here’s a little thought experiment for you.

What do you think the media reaction would have been if Obama had refused to release his tax returns? (Or Clinton, if you will.) Do you think the issue would have essentially vanished by now? Remember, this is the same Liberal Media that hounded Clinton for years over Whitewater and a blowjob.

Likewise, what if Mrs. Obama (or Mrs. Clinton) had said “We’ve given all you people need to know.” What reaction do you think that would have gotten? Especially the dismissive “you people”?

Does the treatment of Romney over this issue really strike you as balanced? Do you truly believe that his tax returns are a non-issue, in the face of forty years of standard behavior for presidential candidates, as initiated by Romney’s own father when he ran for president?

And do you think if Romney is elected, we’ll see a “Taxer” movement the way we’ve seen a “Birther” movement?

I don’t suppose we’ll ever know what was so dreadful that the Romney campaign thought it was worth withstanding the pressure they did come under. Luckily for them, no one really cared in the end. They gambled and won on this issue in a way that no Democrat could ever have gotten away with.

[culture|politics] Pro-life

When you fight for unfettered access to women’s health services…

When you fight for universal contraception…

When you fight for pre-natal care for all children…

When you fight for paid universal maternity and paternity leave…

When you fight for universal health coverage for all children…

When you fight for early childhood education…

When you fight for honest, fact-based teen sex education…

When you fight for equal pay for equal work by mothers as well as fathers…

Then I will believe you are pro-life.

[politics] Empathy and imagination

I’ve commented before that the contemporary American conservative mindset appears to be a failure of both empathy and imagination. I’m not talking about the limited government/strong defense/private enterprise axis of political thought, all of which are perfectly legitimate ideas about which I have varied opinions. I’m talking about the current social and political mindset of many Republican voters, as expressed in the party platforms they support, the candidates they select, and the leaders they elect.

In another part of this country lives a friend of mine with whom I have significant political differences. Not particularly relevant to our friendship, as we simply don’t talk about politics much. He’s an intelligent, thoughtful, generous guy who genuinely cares about the people around him, enjoys his life, and wants everyone else to enjoy theirs. Yet one day in a discussion about healthcare reform, he said to me, “I worked hard to buy that big screen television. Why should I give it up for someone else who doesn’t work as hard as I do?”

Meaning, in effect, why should he pay taxes to support someone less hard working or fortunate than he is?

To me, that’s a profound failure of both empathy and imagination on my friend’s part. He doesn’t see that someone not born into middle class white male privilege would have a much harder time achieving what he has achieved. That for the same amount of work as he’s put in, and frankly quite a bit more, some people can barely pay the rent and keep their kids fed. He doesn’t see that someone who gets sick and isn’t inside our country’s dubious healthcare safety net can so easily lose everything no matter how well they’ve followed the rules and how hard they’ve tried. He doesn’t see that making sure everybody has a decent education and good health and positive working conditions and the right to vote benefits him just as much as it benefits the rest of society.

What he sees is people who don’t work as hard as he do, taking his money. Benefits going to the undeserving at his expense.

And that perception has rendered one of our two major political parties into a cesspool of mean-spirited anger, resentment and punishment. Romney’s 47% remarks were surprising only in their candor, not their content. What he said is implicit in nearly every state GOP party platform as well as the national platform, in the entire process of the Republican presidential primary, the GOP positions on everything from healthcare reform to women’s health.

It’s because people like my friend can’t imagine themselves in a position of need or dependency. And they don’t seem to be able to empathize with those who are. This results in a system where even when help is available, the processes put in place to screen out the undeserving overwhelm those who need help most. (See my multiple posts on the paperwork issues in my healthcare journey.) We prioritize compliance over need every time, precisely because of the need to cater to the conservative failure of empathy and imagination when designing those public programs. And that is when the system is working as designed. God help those people who can’t check all the right boxes.

The real dialog should be over how we solve those problems. Not whether they are legitimate, or whether the people who need help are moochers. It isn’t about the 47%. It’s about being human beings in a humane society. Almost half our country has lost its moral compass with respect to anything beyond its own large screen televisions, and making sure the undeserving don’t get more than their share.

[politics|culture] More on Komen

A friend responded via email to yesterday’s post about the media, political perceptions, and my views on the Komen Foundation. It’s worth reposting, though they specifically requested that I omit attribution. They’ll see any comments people make here, and can covey responses through me if need be.

Here’s a link on media coverage affecting attitudes about politics. Might be something to consider when it comes to other things.

Regarding Komen, I’ve got mixed feelings. I have some warm fuzzies about the group. My mom did a short walk before her diagnosis. The wife of one of my old sources and my source walks it every year and sometimes when they are training their route comes by my house and we chat. So it’s warm fuzzies. People I know do the walk.

But I’m really feeling critical about Komen group. There’s a lot of reasons for me to think that they aren’t a group I’d put time and money into. It’s not just the Planned Parenthood snafu.

They sued other charities for using the words “for the cure.” (To me that’s almost as bad as the Washington Shriners sued the Campfire girls trying to break a 100-year lease on land that the Campfire Girls gave the Shriners. So group that benefits kids sues kids’ group. WTF? Cancer-fighting nonprofit goes after other nonprofits over intellectual property over words that anyone writing about cancer would use. WTF? It’s like the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee suing a brewer for creating 2002 the unofficial amber forgetting that you can’t trademark a year.) I think a nonprofit should take the high road and not worry if someone wants to use the same prepositional phrase.

There’s some concern that more money is being spent on marketing, masked as education (34 percent of the budget page 13 in the FY2011 Annual report, more financial info here. However, I have not looked at their tax statements, which are public record, and compared them to other groups’ statements, such as the American Cancer Society.

There’s also a concern about Komen not recognizing certain carcinogenic as carcinogenic. Jezebel would have it be a red/GOP conspiracy. I’m not so sure about that; I suspect it’s Komen board not understanding science. (That’s my take based on watching some of the lawmakers argue about the science when they were working on outlawing BPAs in Washington.)

There’s also it’s issue with how it uses stats in advertising that caught the attention of two doctors/researchers who published their criticism in the British Medical Journal.

Since Komen is ranked with St. Jude’s as the most trust worthy philanthropy groups in the nation, I think Komen needs to be cautious that the information they provide helps women make informed health choices, rather than misleading them.

[personal|politics] Polling my negatives, and how the media rewires my brain

I’ve been thinking lately about the way media reporting changes my perceptions and political opinions even without me being consciously aware of it.

Sometimes I change my perceptions and political opinions based on reasoned argument. For example, I used to be very strongly opposed to the home schooling movement. I am still fairly uncomfortable with it for a variety of reasons, but an extended set of dialogs on this blog some years ago helped me see that my ideas about home schooling were incomplete and not well-founded.

Other times, my views change without me taking conscious note of either the process or the outcome of the shift until something brings it to my attention. I had the experience of being in the airport security line in Omaha behind a Catholic priest last summer. I found myself with a visceral dislike and distrust of the man simply based on his attire. (And yes, I am aware that he could have been Episcopalian or some other denomination that uses similar clerical attire.)

This baffled me, as I’ve always held a benignly positive view of the Catholic church. I mean, nuns, hospitals, parish schools, Catholic universities — regardless of one’s denominational politics, they do a lot of good in the world. I realized my reaction was due to my persistent disgust with the church’s generations-long gross mishandling of pedophile priests, an institutional corruption in the Catholic church that extends from the base all the way to the top and would likely draw racketeering and conspiracy charges against any secular organization that behaved so. Combine this with the U.S. Catholic bishop’s current vile (and misleadingly baseless) anti-woman political activism with respect to healthcare reform, and somewhere along the line I’d come to see the Catholic church as force for evil in society.

I also realized that if I were traveling with [info]the_child and we were seated with this priest, I would ask to be reseated. I don’t want her exposed to a representative of such a profoundly anti-child, anti-woman organization as the Catholic church.

Is this an appropriate reaction of mine? Absolutely not. For one thing, the Church’s institutional problems are not reflected in its individual members, be they parishioners or priests. For another thing, I appear to have wandered into the mental and emotional space of harboring a religious prejudice, something I have a horror of for both personal and philosophical reasons. It’s very important to me to be fair minded in all things.

The important point here isn’t that I have work to do in how I view the Catholic church and its people. The important point here is that persistent media messaging had changed my thinking without my even realizing it.

Likewise, yesterday morning Ace Jordyn and I were walking in downtown Portland when we came across Portland’s Komen Race for the Cure. Until this past year, I’d always had a strongly positive view of the Susan G. Komen Foundation. I’ve supported friends who participated in the Race for the Cure with pledges. I mean, who can be against breast cancer research? Except this year the Komen Foundation politicized itself with a hard right wing turn to move against any perceived support for abortion through their screening activities with Planned Parenthood. So seeing all that pink just irritated me. Insofar as I was concerned, I was being immersed in right wing shills with a profound anti-woman bias.

Is this fair? Again, absolutely not. For one thing, the Komen foundation, albeit grudgingly, has moved to correct their overreach. For another thing, the Portland chapter almost certainly has nothing to do with the errors of the national organization. And certainly almost none of the thousands of women and men running in pink shirts and hats had the forced pregnancy movement on their minds. They were out there supporting friends and loved ones with breast cancer.

Again, the important point here isn’t that I need to carefully consider my views of the Komen Foundation. The point is how much the media reporting of their misdeeds has influenced my thinking without me being especially conscious of it.

When I apply this realization to the wider world of American media, especially the constant drumbeat of liberals-are-traitors messaging coming from the right wing voices that dominate, is it any wonder so many of my fellow citizens profoundly misunderstand the liberal-progressive agenda? I’m pretty self-aware, and consider my opinions on a regular basis, and that doesn’t save me from falling into the trap of media messaging, especially media messaging that addresses my confirmation biases. Can I expect more for others?

I should start by expecting more from myself.

[religion|politics] The Biblical definition of marriage

I was amused in thinking about something recently. The apparently now-faded Chick-fil-A kerfuffle hinged on a remark by company president and COO Dan Cathy about support for the Biblical definition of marriage. (What he actually said was “Biblical definition of the family unit”, but this has generally been read by all sides as referring to marriage.) Everyone involved from any ideological perspective seems to understand Cathy’s words as encoding for “one man, one woman”.

The New Testament, and therefore the New Covenant has a lot of different things to say about marriage without being especially precise. including Jesus’ very clear statement in Luke 18:29-30 that any man who leaves his wife and children behind for the sake of the Church shall be rewarded all the more in heaven. Sounds a lot like abandonment or divorce to me. The traditional one man, one woman form is quite clearly assumed or explicated in the various texts, but not inviolably so.

But since Christianist opposition to gay marriage hinges substantially on Leviticus 18:22, which is in the Old Testament, it seems to me that any effort to understand the Biblical definition of marriage should rest on the same foundations. This is simple fairness and intellectual consistency, after all. (With respect to the New Testament, Romans 1 26:28 is often cited, but if you read the whole passage and apply a little bit of context, it’s a larger discussion of idolatry and turning away from God and a fairly long list of things which are disapproved of, including pride, boasting and backbiting. It’s certainly not the explicit legalistic prohibition against homosexuality found in Leviticus.)

And Biblical marriage in the Old Testament is a messy, complicated thing.

In Genesis 11 through 25, Abraham rocked it with Sarah and Hagar. Definitely not one man, one woman. For bonus points, Sarah was his half-sister. Admittedly, he wasn’t formally married to Hagar, but this three-way relationship was pretty clearly part of God’s plan.

In Genesis 25 through 50, we learn about Jacob. He rocked it a lot harder with his cousins Rachel and Leah, and various servant girls, all of whom the Bible clearly states were given over to him in marriage.

In the story of David recounted in 1 Samuel and 1 Kings, the foreskins of the Philistines are named as a bride price for his wife Mical. Later on, David arranges the death of one of his generals so he can marry Bathsheba, the man’s wife. Neither of these seems to an approved modern method of courtship. He ultimately winds up with eight wives.

In 1 Kings, Solomon is described as having seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. Definitely not one man, one woman.

In the book of Ruth, Ruth’s relationship with Naomi is described using the same Hebrew words that describe Adam’s relationship with Eve. Even through millennia of selective editing, this seems highly suggestive of a same sex relationship.

This doesn’t even get into the issues around Lot’s daughters, for example.

All of which to say, Biblical marriage is not clear cut. Since my Christianist friends place so much weight on the Old Testament condemnation of same sex relationships in defending traditional marriage, I think it’s only fair that the place a similar weight on the Old Testament’s highly colorful and varied definitions of marriage. One man, one woman isn’t a simple ideal, and it certainly isn’t God’s law.

Doubtless there are detailed theological arguments that richly justify how one picks and chooses which Old Testament verses to defend to the death as inviolable holy writ, and which to blithely ignore. I’m just as certain that once you take even one step away from the moral absolutism of Biblical inerrancy, for example, by wearing mixed fabrics, you lose the right to call upon individual “clobber verses” as being the final arbiters of God’s will with respect to whatever particular argument you wish to make.

Me, even as an atheist I’m a lot more in favor of the New Testament’s messages of love and fairness and non-judgmental inclusion than I am in favor of carefully selected Old Testament prescriptivism. I’m pretty sure that’s the whole point of the New Covenant. Which would seem to argue for a much broader Biblical definition of marriage than my Christianist friends insist upon. Or at the very least, a much kinder and more tolerant treatment of people of whom they do not approve.

[politics] Guns and terrorism and the defense of essential liberties

The 9-11 attacks in 2001 killed 2,996 people1. As a direct result of that, Americans accepted significant limitations on civil liberties and Constitutional rights in the name of fighting terrorism. 3,000 deaths were enough to profoundly change our social behaviors and legal framework. For the first time in our history, we became a nation that formally endorsed torture as an instrument of interrogation. We embraced assassination as an instrument of state policy. We initiated policies of indefinite detention without trial. We began placing ever greater legal and social limitations on freedom of speech. We enacted legal protections for warrantless searches and extensive monitoring of private communication. In effect, we engaged in an explicit wholesale abrogation of the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendments. Arguably the Ninth and Tenth Amendments have also been limited.

This unprecedented assault on the Constitutional rights of Americans was led in substantial part by American conservatives through their political voice in the Republican party. Regrettably, the Democratic party largely supported the Republican initiatives. Even more regrettably, the current Democratic administration has perpetuated most or all of these steps unabated.

Since 9-11, through 2010, there have been 25 deaths due to terrorism in the United States4.

3,000 deaths in a one-time event were sufficiently important for conservatives to shred the Constitution. 25 additional deaths in ten years have been sufficiently important for conservatives to continue to shred the Constitution, and to demonize and vilify anyone who speaks out against these measures.

Compare 9-11 to gun violence. In 2001, the same year that almost 3,000 people died in a terrorist attack, approximately 11,000 people in the United States were murdered by firearms2. Since then, the firearms murder rate has swung between 8,000 and 11,000 deaths annually3. (It’s been trending downward of late.)

Yet according to my conservative friends, the Constitution is so profoundly sacred that any attempt to rein in gun violence is an unacceptable transgression of the Second Amendment. The liberty of keeping and bearing arms is so critical to American citizenship that almost 10,000 deaths per year are an acceptable price to pay.

My question for the Republican party is this: Why was a one-time event of 3,000 deaths so profoundly unacceptable that we changed our entire American way of life, when an annual epidemic of firearms death three times that size is simply part of the cost of a free society? Why is one selected part of the Bill of Rights so inviolable that to even discuss the possibility of gun control is tantamount to treason, while the rest of the Bill of Rights can be traded away in a sustained moment of panic?

In part, I think I can answer my own question. From what I can see of the conservative perspective, this comes down to the utility argument.

For example, motor vehicle deaths in 2001 totaled 42,1965. (Also trending downward since.) That’s 1,400 percent of the 9-11 death toll, yet there was no outrage. We accept the motor vehicle death rate as part of the social cost of our transportation system. As a society, we assign a very high value to our transportation system. Furthermore, these deaths are by definition accidental, with the exception of vehicular homicide or vehicular suicide. No one expects to get into an accident, after all. So we trade utility for risk. High utility, low perceived risk.

Terrorism, on the other hand, has no social value whatsoever to anyone other than the terrorists themselves (and possibly the groups or causes they claim to represent). At any rate, Islamic terrorism of the sort that perpetrated the 9-11 attacks cannot be argued by anyone sane of any political persuasion to represent any positive value to the United States. (I am speaking here specifically of the attacks themselves, not the Bush administration’s response.) Zero utility, high perceived risk.

Widespread private gun ownership has a strong perceived utility to people who favor such a policy. Target shooting, hunting, self-defense and defense of essential liberties are generally the positive values assigned to gun ownership by conservatives and other gun enthusiasts. To people of this viewpoint, much as how society as a whole accepts the automobile death rate as part of the social cost of widespread automobile use, the gun death rate is simply part of the social cost of widespread private gun ownership. And much as with vehicle deaths, no one expects to be shot by their own gun. Most people don’t have a serious fear of violent crime in their daily lives. So we trade utility for risk. High utility (from the gun-owning perspective), low perceived risk.

So the real point of argument isn’t to ask whether the deaths are acceptable. They are, much as automobile deaths are acceptable, if you assume up front that widespread private gun ownership provides social utility. The real point of argument is whether that assessment of utility is valid.

It is presumably obvious that I don’t perceive any such utility.

I am indifferent to target shooting, and my negative opinions about hunting are purely personal and therefore don’t translate into a policy stance on my part.

The self-defense argument collapses in the face of actual data about gun usage in the home, which is strongly unfavorable to the usual pro-gun position. Per Wikipedia, [E]very time a gun in the home was used in a self defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four accidental shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and eleven attempted or completed suicides6. One standard conservative answer to that is the statistics don’t account for millions of crimes deferred by gun ownership. This is another pro-gun claim that doesn’t stand up to non-partisan investigation of the data7. Despite numerous personal anecdotes about self-defense, many of them true, as well as some cherished fringe scholarship on the Right, for society as a whole, the self-defense argument fails on the plain face of the facts.

Furthermore, even if I grant the self-defense argument in the terms framed by pro-gun people, it still doesn’t make sense. Guns are needed for self-defense primarily because bad guys have guns. The only logical outcome of this situation is a positive feedback loop of ever more increasingly powerful and widely distributed weapons. An arms race between citizens and criminals. Whose interests does that serve?

As for the utility argument regarding the defense of essential liberties, insofar as I can tell, conservative America threw that one out the window when they demonstrated an aggressive willingness to trade away a broad spectrum of essential liberties in response to 9-11. If Republicans were the Constitutional absolutists they claim so stoutly to be with respect to the Second Amendment, there would have been a very different response to 9-11, the USA PATRIOT Act would not exist in anything like its current form, and life would be very different in America, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay.

It’s simple common sense that fewer guns mean less violence. Gun violence statistics in the rest of the industrialized world bear this out unequivocally. That to even make this assertion in the national conversation is considered radical and unacceptable is a sign of how far into the culture of violence our society has descended.

The Tea Party constantly reminds us how important the wisdom of the Founders is. As Ben Franklin said, “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”


1. Source: Wikipedia.
2. Source: FBI press release.
3. Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports.
4. Source: University of Maryland Global Terrorism Database.
5. Source: Wikipedia.
6. Source: Wikipedia.
7. Source: Harvard University.

[politics] Mitt Romney’s tax returns

One of the ways I look at life is that I try pretty hard to think about fairness. “Do as you would be done by,” basically. This is my general policy in everything from parenting to dating to finance to personal behavior. It colors of my view of politics, the economy, race, class, gender, and social justice and privilege in general.

Fairness is almost the first casualty of political rhetoric. Pretty much everybody in politics does this. Partisans who will staunchly defend Their Own Guy’s behavior will condemn identical behavior in The Other Guy.

Likewise policies. Look at the Republican response to the Affordable Care Act, which was closely templated on Mitt Romney’s healthcare initiative while he was governor of Massachusetts. If there was ever an approach more tailor made for bipartisanship than a Democratic president proposing a national version of a highly popular and successful Republican reform initiative which manages to both cut costs and improve services, I can’t think what it would be.

Yet the very same law that was responsible conservative stewardship under a Republican governor has become screamingly unacceptable Socialism and an infringement of personal liberty under a Democratic president. Partisanship, specifically the overwhelming GOP desire to deny Obama any form of success at any point, has trumped both fairness and common sense in a ferocious way.

That the same Governor Mitt Romney who enacted the Massachusetts health reforms is now as Candidate Mitt Romney the standard bearer of a party campaign strongly focused on denouncing those same health reforms is just a delicious piece of bizarre irony which will baffle political scientists of future generations.

On to Romney’s tax returns…

I really couldn’t care less about his tax returns. He’s a very rich dude. We’ve always known that about him, ever since Romney became a public figure. The details are whatever they are. Unless he’s withholding his returns to conceal material fraud or criminal behavior, I honestly don’t think they’re all that relevant. Who cares precisely how wealthy he is? How does that change the national conversation?

I’m not saying this isn’t an important question. I’m saying the importance is not in the details of tax filings. The importance is in the broad strokes of the economic and class narrative that has become a definitive issue in this election. Absent fraud or criminality, the tax returns are basically details. Important to certain kinds of electoral wonks, but not terribly relevant to the public as a whole.

Even if Romney literally paid no taxes in some years, as Senator Reid has alleged, so long as he did it legally, I don’t care. Romney’s a rich dude. Just like big corporations, rich dudes have accountants and lawyers who manage their taxes with the specific goal of minimizing the burden. Money takes care of itself. That’s one of the iron laws of capitalism. if you don’t like it, take that issue up with Congress, who writes the tax code. Not with the rich, who live under it.

(And no, I don’t like it either. Just making the point that Romney’s tax history really isn’t a legitimate issue per se given the way the system works today. In this case, the flaws are in the system, not in Romney or his candidacy.)

What is hugely important to me is the politics of the situation. I’m going back to my lede about fairness here. Every major presidential candidate since (ironically enough) George Romney in the 1968 election cycle has released substantial personal financial information, including years of tax returns. While that’s certainly not required by law, nor should it be in my opinion, it’s a significant gesture of good faith with respect to revealing potential or perceived conflicts of interest and matters of personal history which are in fact quite relevant in selecting a national leader.

After well over four decades of this tradition, Romney’s not releasing the tax returns is like setting a giant bonfire declaring, “I have something to hide.”

It’s apparently the political equivalent of destruction of evidence. You see destruction of evidence when corporations or people accused of misconduct make the calculation that the penalties for that destruction of evidence are less substantial than the penalties for the alleged crime under investigation.

The Romney campaign has obviously decided that whatever is in those tax returns (and my guess is Senator Reid is right, or close to right) is so politically toxic that they would rather weather the storm of holding them back than deal with the consequences of the release of those documents.

Many figures in the GOP political and media elite are backing Romney up on this. Claiming that his privacy applies. Claiming that this is a personal decision. Pointing out the release of the tax returns is not required by law. Accusing Obama and the Democrats of fishing for trouble.

So, fairness.

Is there a single figure in the GOP political and media elite who would have embraced Clinton’s refusing to release his tax records under any conceivable grounds? Or Obama? Is it even conceivable that the entire Republican establishment would have done anything other than go into a paroxysm of conspiracy paranoia over such secrecy?

Even more ironically, Romney himself has taken in the past precisely the opposite viewpoint to his current highly principled stance on financial privacy when it came to demanding senatorial campaign opponent Ted Kennedy release his tax returns in order to prove that he had “nothing to hide”. Do as you would be done by, Mitt? Again, fairness.

Sadly, “Do as you would be done by” almost never applies in politics. The profoundly brazen hypocrisy of the very same people who would crucify any significant Democratic figure for holding back personal financial information turning around to vigorously defend the financial privacy of the richest man ever to run for president is both entertaining and infuriating to watch.

It’s obvious enough where this comes from. One of the primary assumptions of partisan politics is that Our Guy Is a Trustworthy Statesman, While Your Guy Is A Lying Skunk. All those GOP politicos and pundits know perfectly well that Romney is trustworthy and has nothing to hide. They honestly believe that anyone who says otherwise is engaging in character assassination. At the same time, they also know perfectly well that Clinton was a criminal conspiracist whose misdeeds were only covered up by a trail of bodies, and that Obama is a Kenyan Muslim Socialist bent on the destruction of America. They’re not being unfair, they’re just pointing out the “truths” that seem obvious to them.

If this tax return question is the worst thing that Romney has to weather on his road to either winning or losing the White House, then he has it much better than either Clinton or Obama did on any single day of either their candidacies or their presidencies. But Romney’s partisans will never see it that way. They will never recognize their own profound unfairness.

Because fairness is the first casualty of political rhetoric.

[politics] Boycotts, argument and free speech

I find the Right’s reaction to opposition to the words and deeds of the Chick-fil-A corporation and its founder Dan Cathy laughable. I’ve seen some of my own conservative friends crowing online about their bravery in standing up for the company’s free speech rights and opposing politically correct bullying by buying a chicken sandwich. As if gay hate and legalized discrimination were Christian virtues, or family values, or, really, anything to be proud of whatsoever. Besides which, speaking out against Chick-fil-A and refusing to buy from them is no violation of anyone’s rights.

Given how often the Right, especially the Christian Right, boycotts movies, books and businesses, that they should call out a liberal-progressive boycott as a form of oppression is just bizarre.

With occasional rare exceptions, I’ve never been moved to discuss my boycotts at any length. For all that I’m as political as I am, it rarely seems important enough to spend time on. And I don’t put much if any effort into convincing others to join me in my decisions on such things. But I have a few.

Other than one or two dire emergencies, I haven’t bought gas at an Exxon station since the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Not because of the spill itself. Accidents do happen. But because of Exxon’s handling both at the time and later.

Likewise BP and the Deepwater Horizons accident in the Gulf of Mexico. Again, not because of the spill itself, but because of the chronic mendacity, deception and coverup with which that episode began, and from which it has suffered ever since.

I have not ordered or knowingly eaten Domino’s Pizza since I learned of founder Tom Monaghan’s commitment to forced pregnancy through the so-called “right to life” movement, and the fraud of “Christian” education through the Ave Maria School of Law. While I am aware that Monaghan sold the pizza chain years ago, I refuse to support anything connected to him.

I do not read books by Orson Scott Card, nor will I submit to the short fiction market he sponsors, because his repeatedly well publicized views on the civil and legal rights of my gay and lesbian friends. I won’t say more about Card’s motives or words, because my real thoughts would constitute a personal attack. But he is an author whose work I once loved and revered. And while I know very well the author is not the story, I also know I don’t want to contribute to Card’s good name or fortunes even to the value of one book I might buy or one story I might recommend to someone else. There are plenty of other authors whose personal views I disagree with, some of them vastly. Some of them are also my friends. But none of them have managed to trigger me into such a state of revulsion and disgust that I simply couldn’t live with myself if I did support them.

I do not buy from or link to ever since they took their blatantly anti-author steps during the Macmillan ebooks pricing dispute. When pulled the Macmillan print lines from their Web sites over an unrelated dispute concerning a separate contract on a different business line, they punished individual authors deeply while having virtually no effect on Macmillan. This is the moral equivalent of me beating the crap out of your kid brother because you and I are arguing over the merits of tax policy. That profoundly anti-writer business practice is only one portion of’s history of abuse of their market power, and I simply won’t contribute any more.

In none of these cases am I violating anyone else’s First Amendment rights to free speech. First of all, I am not a State actor, and cannot violate someone else’s First Amendment rights. Second of all, my right to call attention to or oppose anyone’s market presence or public actions is just as much my own free speech, and in no wise an infringement of theirs. Despite Sarah Palin’s recurrent whining, the First Amendment does not guarantee anyone freedom from the repercussions of their own protected speech.

Criticism, even in the form of boycotts, is not oppression. It’s not a violation of free speech. It’s a basic expression of democratic values. Just as I’m free never to eat at Chick-fil-A again in my life, my conservative friends are free to eat there every day of their lives. I don’t really care what they do, any more than I care who will join me in my boycotts of Exxon, Domino’s, Amazon and so forth.

I just know that I don’t ever need to have anything to do with Chick-fil-A again. And I know that in boycotting them, I’m standing up for freedom, equality and justice for all. Unlike my conservative friends, who in gleefully supporting Chick-fil-A and founder Dan Cathy are taking an outspoken stand against freedom, equality and justice for all, at least in any America where “all” includes my gay and lesbian friends.

[politics|religion] The soft bigotry of church doctrine

One meme I’ve seen lately in political discussions both in the wider Internets and even here on my blog and in related discussion threads on my Facebook page is the notion that some conservatives opposed to gay marriage and equal rights have that they’re not really bigots at all. They’re just following church doctrine. They’re nice people, they don’t really have anything against their gay and lesbian friends. They’re just being obedient to God’s words. What Slacktivist Fred Clark calls “reluctant bigotry“.

A corollary to these complaints is the bigot feeling unfairly treated for being called out on their bigotry. As R. Eric VanNewkirk says: if you don’t want to be called a bigot, stop acting like one. I’m not about to hold back just because you say it’s your religion. And nobody ought to.

The church doctrine defense is ridiculous on the face of it. Church doctrine is not immutable. It has in the past been profoundly immoral and bigoted. And it has changed. Whatever your opinion of God (and most readers here are probably all too familiar with my opinions on the topic), His word is demonstrably Protean, changing with the needs of each generation and culture. Otherwise, all His followers would look like Orthodox Jews and live like the Amish ETA: look and live like Samaritans. (Thanks to [info]fjm for the correction) If you eat shrimp or wear mixed fabrics or cut your hair or drive a motorized vehicle, you’ve already abandoned the literal and immutable Holy Writ in favor of the realities of modern life.

To put it somewhat more logically, if the precepts of the Bible were as immutable and unchanging as many modern American Christians claim to believe, there would only be one denomination of the Christian church, instead of tens of thousands.

We don’t have to look very hard into American history to see where church doctrine has failed miserably. The most blatant and grotesque example is the biblical justifications for slavery. They are too numerous to bother to link to here, but were woven into the American national conversation from long before the founding of the Republic right through the Civil War. Doctrinal disputes over slavery are why the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention, exists at all.

Were defenses of slavery through church doctrine morally acceptable, even at the time? Do they appear morally acceptable even to the most conservative of religious Americans today?

If you think so, then we don’t have much to talk about now, because there’s something deeply wrong with you.

If you think not, then why can anyone use church doctrine today as a defense for discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans? It’s nothing more or less than the same bigotry that wrapped slavery in the Bible for centuries and more. Surely the Bible has verses condemning homosexuality. It also has verses condemning the eating of shrimp, and verses condoning many forms of slavery. We’ve proven time and again that the meaning of the Bible is reinterpreted to suit the tenor of the times. Someday fairly soon, we will look back on the current religious conservative position on homosexuality as every bit as wrong and immoral as the historical religious conservative position on slavery. Or interracial marriage. Or any number of other things church doctrine has been mistaken about over the years.

In other words, sometimes God is wrong. His word is reinterpreted in every generation, in every culture. Pretending now that church doctrine excuses the believer from doing the right thing is both disingenuous and dismissive of the history of belief.

To claim you oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians because it’s God’s will is a cop-out for your own moral decision making. There’s certainly no compelling (or even trivial) social interest in this discrimination, and plentiful compelling social interest in righting these historic wrongs. Insofar as I can tell by observing who opposes full civil rights for my gay and lesbian friends with their words and their money, such opposition is rooted almost entirely in a religious conservative mindset. Come on, people, at least have the courage to own your bigotry instead of hiding behind the Bible.

And in truth, would you rather be on the right side of church doctrine, or on the right side of history? Especially when church doctrine will inevitably change with the times? Just as it has over and over again throughout history.

[politics] Communism and steak

I am about ready to turn my sails back into the wind on political topics, after taking a break. I owe Bryan Thomas Schmidt a response on a joint post we want to do, and I have a few things to say to Brad Torgersen as well. Separately from those two discussions, I’m also preparing some commentary on people using religious doctrine to excuse themselves from emotional and moral responsibility for their racism and homophobia — the modern conservative’s defense of “Hey, you can’t call me a bigot! I’m a nice guy, I’m just following orders.”

All that being said, I want to talk now about framing language, Communism and steak.

One of the things I find baffling about contemporary conservative political rhetoric is the degree to which political and media figures on the right use labeling in wildly inappropriate ways. That’s framing language, of course, a largely successful attempt to influence the terms of public discourse in ways favorable to their cause.

People have always done this in politics, all the way back to the hunter-gatherer days, I am sure. The classic of modern politics is of course Newt Gingrich’s infamous GOPAC memo from 1994. A cursory review of political history since the Clinton era makes it pretty clear that the GOPAC memo succeeded beyond even Gingrich’s wildest dreams.

One outcome of that is that certain conservative scare words have taken on significance in American political rhetoric that barely aligns at all with their generally understood meanings. Eugene V. Debs would have been quite surprised to hear someone with Obama’s governing style and policies described as a “Socialist”, for example. There’s not an actual Socialist on the planet who would recognize the current Democratic administration as a fellow traveler. Yet you almost literally cannot go a day without hearing Republican figures all the way up to the top referring to the president as a Socialist.

Which is objectively ridiculous, but does a terrific job of keeping the Republican voting base scared and angry. Everyone knows Socialism is bad, right? Never mind Medicare and Social Security and public schools and all the rest — the Right has decades of investment in that boogeyman, and they’re not going to let it go to waste.

Likewise the label “Communist”. When Florida Representative Allen West (GOP, of course) recently proclaimed in a very literally McCarthyite fashion that he had evidence that there were 80 Communists among the Democrats in Congress, he was speaking to the Republican base. There isn’t a single Democratic politician in the United States that Fidel Castro or Vladimir Lenin would recognize as a Communist. West wasn’t using that word with any relationship to its objective meaning. He was saying to conservatives that Democrats are despicable traitors who want to overthrow the United States government and take away people’s money and guns. That’s not the least bit true either in any rational or objective sense, but the modern conservative narrative demonstrably requires paranoia and victimization to sustain itself. West was merely throwing another turtle on the fire.

Which leads me to something I wondered about years ago: what is Communism, really?

I asked my dad (a now-retired U.S. diplomat, hailing from the Kennedy best-and-brightest era of liberal hawks) that question when I was about eight years old.

Dad very patiently explained some basics about Marxism, collectivism, and the workers’ state in age appropriate vocabulary. He quoted, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.1 I processed this for a while, then asked the following question, now paraphrased somewhat through four decades of memory.

“So if everybody gets what they need, how do they decide who gets to eat a steak? If everyone just went to the store and took a steak, wouldn’t they run out of meat pretty soon?”

Which, as Dad said, is precisely the problem with Communism. Who gets to eat the steak?

Which is how I’ve thought of Communism ever since: as a flawed system for deciding where the steak goes.

Really, that’s what it’s all about at some level. Who gets to eat the steak. That’s what conservatives mean when they shriek that right-of-center Democrats are Socialists and Communists. They’re afraid that the steak rations will change in ways they don’t like. That’s what the Occupy movement was about, what drives the mounting resentment against the 1% and the alarming growth of the class divide in American society. That fewer and fewer people are getting all the steak.

Who gets to eat the steak?

What did you have for dinner?

1. Amusingly, polling data on Karl Marx’s phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” shows that almost two-thirds of Americans believe that the phrase was or could have been written by authors of the Constitution, and can be found in the Constitution. Source: Columbia Law School. Mmm, Communism pace Thomas Jefferson.