Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Ominous Parallels

As my regular readers -- both of you -- know, I think evangelical Christian homophobia is a mistake that time will correct.  Fifty years from now, Mark Driscoll's grandchildren will be sitting around a dining room table saying, "Wow, can you believe that at one time people used the Bible to condemn homosexuality?"  Just as today, evangelicals sometimes say, "Wow, can you believe that at one time people used the Bible to teach racial segregation?"

Obviously race and sexual orientation are different, and so it's not a perfect comparison.  But I think the process of how the church got from segregationist to racial egalitarianism is probably a pretty good roadmap for how it will get from homophobia to gay-accepting.  Even though I certainly hope I'm wrong.

At one time, white Southern churches were almost uniformly pro-segregation.  Southern Baptists, Southern Presbyterians, Southern Methodists and Southern Episcopalians all accepted as an article of faith that God didn't like it when the races mixed, or when Blacks were treated as the equals of Whites.

Today, one would have to look hard to find an evangelical church that still takes that position.  They're probably still out there, but they're the lunatic fringe instead of the mainstream.

Unfortunately, it was not an easy process.  Within the churches, the move to egalitarianism was bitter, acrimonious, bloody (sometimes literally) and ruthless.  There were churches that split over it.  There were pastors who were defrocked over it.  There were churches that were torched, and others in which people were killed.  It was a horrible, nasty period within evangelical church history.  But, when the smoke cleared, a new consensus emerged within the church, that segregation was evil and the wall of racism needed to come down, as come down it did.

So where does this leave us on the evangelical church and gay issues?  There are those on my side of the issue who think that all it takes is a bit of dinner table diplomacy and opponents of gay rights will see the error of their ways and welcome God's gay and lesbian children back, with a big group hug for all.  I think this is incredibly, incredibly naive.

Sure, the wall of Christian homophobia has some cracks in it.  A few bricks have come loose here and there.  I would like, in my best Ronald Reagan imitation, to turn to the evangelical pastors and say, "Mr. Gorbachev, take down this wall!" if I thought they would pay any attention.

Someday that wall will come crashing down, and evangelical leaders will have to decide for themselves on which side of it they wish to be when it does.  But I think the lesson of the Black civil rights movement is that it's not going to be easy.  It's going to be a long, nasty, drawn-out, vicious and acrimonious affair.  Churches will split.  Some pastors will be defrocked.  There may even be violence here and there, though I certainly hope not.

And, when the dust clears, people will sit around kitchen tables and say, "Wow, can you believe that people used to use the Bible to condemn homosexuality?"

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Is the United States governable?

Glory be, the election is finally over; I thought I was going to have a buy a new wastebasket just for all the political junk mail.  Now that the dust has settled, I think the lesson is that the United States is largely ungovernable.

We have an electorate that is more or less evenly split between the Republicans and the Democrats, with about ten percent in the middle who actually decide the election.  (That plus the two-thirds who stayed home, which calls into question whether the election is even an accurate reflection of what most people are thinking.)

What that means, in practice, is that neither side has the votes to actually govern effectively.  The Republicans have spent the last six years mostly blocking any Democratic proposals (including ones that they used to support themselves before the Democrats did).  Now that the GOP controls both houses of Congress, the Democrats will spend the next two years blocking GOP proposals.  Nobody can get anything done, but both sides can keep the other from getting anything done.

What this means is that nothing will get done, and two years from now the electorate will be furious that nothing has gotten done.  Which party the ten percent in the middle blames remains to be seen, but the next election will be one of voter anger at gridlock, just like the last one, and the one before that, and the one before that.  And, one party or the other will have a Congressional majority (and maybe the White House too), but not enough of a majority to get past the other party's ability to block stuff.  So, two years after that, there will be another election in which the voters are ticked off that nothing has happened.

So I will make a prediction:  Whichever party wins in 2016, will get clobbered in 2018.  Meanwhile, we muddle through.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A few random thoughts on Mark Driscoll (and his critics)

Mark Driscoll is the founder and, until recently, senior pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle.  He stepped down in the wake of allegations of bullying, plagiarism, possible financial improprieties, authoritarianism, and other flaws.  He leaves behind a megachurch that will take months if not years to heal.  As usual, he has supporters who believe he is being unjustly persecuted, and detractors who think he is the anti-Christ, Judas Iscariot and King Ahab all rolled into one.  Also as usual, the truth is most likely somewhere in the middle.

I was never a huge fan of Driscoll's; his raw sexism (he once referred to women as penis houses) and vicious homophobia ruined it for me.  He always struck me as an angry man, which makes it easy to believe the bullying charges may have some basis in realty.  But perhaps it would be helpful to move away from specifics and into generalities.

In general, it takes a certain type of personality to have the drive to build a megachurch.  I could never do it; I'm a shy, retiring, introverted. bookish. academic kinda guy.  I might do okay as a teacher in somebody else's megachurch, but the Type-A personality required to bring such  a church into existence; that's just not me.  And I deeply respect and admire those who do have the personality to make it happen.

At the same time, the reality is that often those same traits that make someone a super-leader also make them very difficult to live with.  Megachurch founders, and leaders of Fortune 100 corporations, often do not play well with others.  They often don't do things by consensus, and they frequently don't tolerate opposing viewpoints.  Nor could it be otherwise; it's those very traits that make them super-leaders in the first place.

So how surprising is it, then, when the founder of a very successful megachurch turns out to be a bully who thinks the rules don't apply to him.  And maybe, just maybe, the rest of us simply need to accept that reality.  I'm not saying that bullies shouldn't strive to do better; I'm just saying that sometimes they just are what they are.

This then takes us to the board of directors that forced him out.

That board is made up of people who, one assumes, mostly don't have the talents to start a megachurch of their own, and who therefore owe their positions and salaries to the efforts of someone who did.  How very strange it must be to be in the position of having to fire someone without whose work the megachurch from which he is being fired wouldn't exist.  It's almost as if, once the Constitution had been ratified, the country had told Jefferson, Madison and Monroe that their services were no longer needed.

I suppose that sometimes the good of the institution requires getting rid of people who, at an earlier stage, were necessary.  But I'm not sure I have the personality to do that either.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Be Not Afraid

Some years ago I saw a movie; I'm too lazy to look up the name of it, but it starred Albert Brooks.  The premise of the movie is that people who had died were either allowed into heaven or sent back to earth for a do-over depending on how well they had managed to overcome their fears.

I thought at the time that it was a really stupid premise.  Of all the ways to define someone, why would the single most important be how well one faces one's fears?  But over the years, I'm come to realize that most people do in fact allow their major decisions to be fear-based rather than hope-based.

The political parties certainly understand this.  That's why one party scares the voters to death with illegal immigrants, crime and terrorists, and the other tries to frighten them with elderly people dying of poverty in the streets with no health care.  Fear will get you more votes than hope, any day of the week.

There have been two major news stories this week that, while unrelated on the surface, are both about using fear to make policy.

The first is Ebola.  In the United States, you are more likely to get dumped by Brad Pitt than you are to catch Ebola.  Most of the health care workers at the Dallas Hospital who cared for the Liberian Ebola patient did not catch it even without taking precautions.  Most of the people who shared an airplane with an infected nurse traveling between Dallas and Cleveland did not get it.  While I would not advocate exchanging bodily fluids with someone in the final stages of Ebola, it's just not that easy a disease to catch.  Yet for all the fearmongering taking place in the media, one would think we were all going to die of Ebola.

The second was the Vatican announcement earlier in the week that the church would welcome gays and lesbians, which was backtracked a few days later after the scaremongers had been heard from.  I do not understand what the righteous are afraid of -- do they think homosexuality is contagious? -- but they're obviously afraid of something.  In a few years, after the Curia has calmed down, the church will do what the pope tried to do this week, which is welcome gay people.  But for now, the very idea still gives the bishops a very bad case of the vapors.

Hope is a much better policy basis than fear.  Oh, that we as a species could learn that.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Do All Roads Lead to Rome?

I have always been terribly interested in comparative religion.  Ideas have consequences, and few ideas in human history have had greater consequences than those that fit under the general heading of religion.  That is true at both the personal level -- there's a wonderful line in a novel in which a woman reflects on how very different her life would be if she only worshiped different gods -- and at the human history level.  Had monotheism never arisen, for example, the world would be a very different place today.  And it is for that reason that I'm actually less interested in the theological trivia of any given religion, even though I'm reasonably well versed on the theological trivia of most of them, than I am in how any given individual's life is actually different than it would be if he worshiped other gods.

When I was living in New Orleans, I took advantage of my stay there to learn about voodoo, which, after all, is another comparative religion.  The woman I studied under said something that struck me then as wrong, but which over time I've come to believe she may have had a point about.  She told me that everyone, of all faiths, believes basically the same thing (minus theological trivia that varies from one faith to another) and they just have different names for it.  The example she gave is that voodoo teaches about the existence of spirits; the dear departed to whom the living look for inspiration, guidance and aid.  Christians, on the other hand, believe in saints, which are the dear departed to whom the living look for inspiration, guidance and aid, albeit Protestants less so than Catholics.  Voodoo has its spirits; Christianity has its saints; but both of them basically boil down to the same fundamental concept:  Those who have gone before continue to take an interest in human affairs and can be called on for help.  The idea that everyone believes essentially the same thing is, incidentally, also the central tenet of the Bahai faith:  All religions are valid.

In college I studied the major schools of Greek philosophy.  Later, when I was learning about the great Eastern philosophies, I was immediately struck by how very similar they were to what the Greeks came up with.  Confucianism is basically a Chinese version of Greek stoicism, and Greek epicurianism is effectively a Western incarnation of Taoism.  Yes, there are bits of theological minutiae that distinguish them, but overall it's the same general idea.

So what is the cash value of all of this?  I said at the beginning of this post that I was less interested in theological trivia than I am in whether anyone's religion has actually made them a better person.  And so, for an example of what I mean, let us take up the theological question of whose wife will she be in the judgment.

The Sadducees, who didn't even believe in the resurrection, once came to Jesus with a question:  There was a woman who had been married seven times, and none of the marriages had produced any children.  She then died herself.  Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?  OK, why would the Sadducees, who didn't even believe in the resurrection, ask such a question?

As it happened, Jesus had recently ministered to a Samaritan woman at the well, who had had five husbands, and was then living with a man to whom she wasn't married.  The Sadducees had two choices.  They could either be happy that this woman who had spent an entire life in isolation, pain, alienation and loneliness, had met Jesus and something wonderful had happened as a result.  Or, they could start a doctrinal dispute over whose wife she would be in the judgment (even though they couldn't even get their facts straight and tacked on a couple of extra husbands just for good measure).  Because they couldn't bear the thought of being happy for her, they invented a theological dispute.

Now, theology has its uses, and Jesus did in fact answer their question (after first telling them it was based on a flawed premise).  But at the end of the day, the life-changing event was far more important than the theological trivia in which the religious leaders wished to engage.

So, you want to convince me that your particular religion is the true one?  Don't even bother trying to dazzle me with your theology.  Show me that it's changed your life.  Because if it hasn't, I'll go amuse myself by finding some Nietzsche to read.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Them durned liberals

One of the most effective public relations campaigns ever waged was to convince the American public that "liberal" is a dirty word, even though polling data indicates most Americans are liberal when polled issue by issue.

They've been convinced that Obamacare is a Marxist plot, even though they like many of its specific provisions and presuppositions:  No one should be denied medical care because they can't afford it, nobody should be denied health care because they lost a job, nobody should be denied health care because of a pre-existing condition, and students should be able to stay on their parents' health care plan if they can't afford their own.

Americans like strong public schools, federal money for medical research, solid infrastructure, and abortion rights.  They've generally come around on gay marriage.  They want social security to be there to take care of them in their old age.  They like breathing unpolluted air and drinking uncontaminated water.  They understand that people who have done well should pay it forward so other people can do well too.  And none of those are the conservative positions.

So why, then, did so many Americans become convinced that liberalism is a bad thing, even as they themselves agree with the liberal view on issue after issue after issue?

It's all in the marketing.  Or, to put it another way, in politics perception is far more important than reality.

It is in the best interests of one of our political parties -- I'm not going to say which one -- to have people believe that liberals are evil and un-American and completely out of step with American values.  Liberalism, like every other belief system, has its liberal fringe that is easy to parody, and parody they did.  And if you want to know how we arrived at a situation in which a political party so completely out of touch with the pulse of the average American voter managed to acquire and keep such a disproportionate amount of political power and influence, that's it.  Tell people over and over and over again that liberals are stupid and evil, and they'll start to believe it, even if they themselves have liberal leanings.

While appalled at the results, I have to admire the artisanship of it.  It was a brilliant strategy.  Unfortunately it worked.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The police state is already here

In United States v. Dreyer, the US Court of Appeals reversed the conviction of a child pornographer because of the manner in which the government collected the evidence that was used to convict him.  You can read the opinion here:  Standing alone, this isn't news; convictions get reversed all the time because the government violated somebody's Fourth Amendment rights.  But this was not a Fourth Amendment case.

A detective with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (yes, the same agency with a television program starring Mark Harmon) found a computer program that allowed him to search every computer in the State of Washington.  Yes, you are reading correctly, and no, that is not a typo.  Every computer in the State of Washington.  Let that sink in for a minute.  If you live in Washington, and have a computer, it was probably searched without your knowledge or consent by an employee of the US Department of Defense.

The agent found child pornography on a computer belonging to Michael Dreyer, who lived in suburban Seattle.  Based on that evidence he was arrested, convicted of child pornography, and sentenced to prison.

Now, I yield to no one in my contempt for people who exploit children.  I'm fine with locking child pornographers up and throwing away the key.  But that is not the point.

There are few things I find more outrageous than child pornography, but the idea that somebody who works for the Pentagon can search every computer in an entire state, without a warrant, is one of them.

Fortunately the Court of Appeals saw it that way too, and tossed Dreyer's conviction.  They did so, not on Fourth Amendment grounds, but on the basis of a statute that says the military cannot be used for normal, run of the mill law enforcement.  The government is outraged and is promising an appeal to the Supreme Court.  I don't see that that gets the government anything, because even if the Supreme Court agrees with it on the statute, I don't see how such a search clears the Fourth Amendment; since the Court of Appeals ruled on statutory grounds they did not reach the Fourth Amendment issue.  They almost certainly will reach the Fourth Amendment issue if the Supreme Court sends it back.

But the troublesome take home message is that the government not only has the technology to go snooping around in anyone's computer they take an interest in, with no warrant, they already have.  Further, the government is taking the position that they have the right to.

Fortunately, as of now, the courts have smacked them down.  This is the sort of police state tactic that needs to be smacked down, and hard.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

"I'm Better Than You" Theology

Jesus told a parable in which he said that the kingdom of heaven was like a seed that grew into a tree, and the birds of heaven came and nested there.  And over the years, some awfully strange birds have made their home in the church.  From time to time I peruse various religious blogs just to remind myself of how many kooks there are babbling in the name of Jesus.

So today we take up the case of Tim Bayly, pastor of Clearnote Church in Indiana.  Tim writes a blog in which he says things that are so bizarre one sometimes wonders if they are actually very clever satire, because nobody could actually believe anything that crazy, right?  He has said, for example, that he feels closest to his daughter just after he's given her a spanking, apparently completely oblivious to just how creepy that sounds to everyone else.  Once, when someone told him about a 14 year old boy who had been kicked out of his house for being gay and ended up as a street hustler, he praised the parents for teaching their son that there are consequences to being a homosexual.  Sorry, Tim, but the utter moral depravity required to commend people for throwing a 14 year old kid to the wolves simply disqualifies you from being taken seriously about anything else.

And what is Tim fulminating about today?  Another evangelical leader, Michael Farris of the homeschooling movement, has gone soft on the patriarchy.  (Full disclosure:  I went to law school with Mike Farris and, while I haven't spoken to him in twenty years and doubt very much that he would remember me, I liked him and considered him a friend at the time.)

So to start, what does patriarchy mean to Tim Bayly?  From his own blog post on the subject (you can read the entire howler here: he states that "women (should) show a certain deference to men" and "that not only husbands with wives, but men with women live in an understanding way since women are weaker vessels."  Further, "every man was to be a gentleman and every woman was to be a lady. And at the center of her ladiness was a certain deference to the sex God placed His Own Father-authority in: man."

To the extent that Farris disagrees with this bilge in toto, he is to be commended.  Unfortunately, Farris only disagrees with it in part, and, having read Farris's comments in their entirety (rather than the small snippet Bayly quotes) I think their difference is more about semantics than actual practice.  In any situation actually likely to arise in the real world, I think Farris and Bayly would mostly be on the same page almost all of the time.

OK, this is all very interesting, but what is the take-home message?  The take-home message is this:  "I'm better than you because I have a penis."  Which is the same theological narcissism that in an earlier era gave us "I'm better than you because I'm white" and "I'm better than you because I'm straight."  Bow before me, o lesser ones: I am the favored of God because I pee standing up, I have light skin, and my life partner has an indentation rather than a projection.  Isn't it obvious that this is the natural order of things?

As Judge Easterbrook once put it, "some people believe with great fervor preposterous things that just happen to coincide with their self-interest."  Coleman v. CIR, 791 F.2d 68 (7th Cir. 1986).  Is Bayly's position preposterous?  Of course.  Does it happen to coincide with his self-interest?  Yup.  Ever notice how those people who believe in one or another manifestation of the doctrine of the chosen ones also just happen to believe that they, themselves, happen to be the chosen ones?  Just as it was pure self-interest for white racists to believe that whites were superior to blacks, so it is pure self-interest for men to believe that women are inferior (or, if you prefer, the weaker vessel).  Which means that their philosophy, as with any other philosophy based on self-interest, should be greeted with the greatest of skepticism.

Fortunately, most people are no longer buying what Bayly and company are selling.  The First Amendment gives him the right to speak.  It also gives the rest of us the right to point and laugh.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Will the Supreme Court take a gay marriage case?

Within the past year, a score of federal courts, both trial courts and courts of appeal, have ruled in favor of gay marriage.  One lone federal judge, in Louisiana, has ruled against it; that decision is now on appeal.  With another Supreme Court term due to begin October 6, the question is whether the Supreme Court will step in to resolve the issue.

In order for the rest of this blog post to make any sense, one has to understand something about the structure of the federal courts.  The United States is divided into just over 100 federal judicial districts, and each of them has what are called trial courts.  That is the court where lawsuits, both civil and criminal, are initially brought.

Whoever loses at the trial court has the option of going to the United States Court of Appeals, which has 12 geographic circuits.  For example, the First Circuit, headquartered in Boston, hears appeals from trial courts in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico.  The Second Circuit, headquartered in New York, hears appeals from Vermont, New York, Connecticut, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  There are a couple of specialized courts of appeals that hear specific types of cases, but they do not concern us here.

The loser at the US Court of Appeals can then file a petition with the Supreme Court.  Unlike the US Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court gets to decide which cases it will hear, and it doesn't hear many.  Every year about 3000 petitions are filed with the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court decides to hear between 100 and 150.  The rest are summarily denied.  There are a very few types of cases the Supreme Court is required to take, such as when one state files a lawsuit against another state, but not that many.

There are nine justices on the Supreme Court, and it takes four of them to decide to hear a case.  Supreme Court justices make tactical decisions about how to vote; a justice who feels strongly about a particular case, but who thinks a majority of his colleagues will disagree with him, might vote not to take it because he doesn't want to lose on the merits.

So, now that we understand all of that, back to the original question:  Will the Supreme Court agree to take a gay marriage case this term?

If the Supreme Court wants to decide the issue, it may be now or never.  Four circuit courts of appeal will never rule on gay marriage because gay marriage is already legal in every state (or, in the case of the District of Columbia Circuit, in Washington DC) within that circuit.  Three other circuits have already ruled -- all in favor of gay marriage -- and at least one and possibly three others will have done so by the time October 6 rolls around.  All circuits will likely have decided the issue in another 12 months or so.  So, after this term, there may simply not be any more gay marriage cases to decide, especially if the circuits that have not yet been heard from all rule in favor of gay marriage, which is possible.  If that's the case, the easiest thing for the Supreme Court to do would be to simply punt the issue.

If there is a circuit split -- one or more of the circuits that has not yet been heard from rules against gay marriage -- that makes Supreme Court review that much more likely, but still not a sure-shot certainty.  Resolving circuit splits is one reason the Supreme Court often takes cases, but it is not required to do so, and there have been other times when it has chosen not to involve itself in circuit splits, leaving federal law to be different in different parts of the country.  Still, I think it would be really difficult for the court to allow different law in different parts of the country on this particular issue.

But here's the reason I think the Supreme Court might decide to avoid the issue:  With nine justices, it takes five votes to decide the case on the merits, and nobody knows which side would have five votes.  I don't think the justices themselves know how that vote would turn out.  Which means that granting Supreme Court review would be a very high stakes poker game indeed.  By my count, there are four solid votes for gay marriage, three solid votes against, one very likely vote against, and one that could go either way.  Those are not the odds one wants in a high stakes poker game, regardless of which side one is on.  The anti-gay-marriage side won't want to enshrine gay marriage in constitutional law; the pro-gay-marriage side won't want to risk a decision that would likely take 20 years to undo that the Constitution doesn't protect gay couples.

Of course, should one of the conservatives on the court drop dead of a heart attack, then that would significantly change the landscape, and probably also greatly increase the probability of Supreme Court review since the pro-marriage side would then be in a much better position.

At any rate, it's going to be an interesting 12 months.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Few Random Thoughts on ISIS

1.  As bad a guy as Saddam Hussein was, he would have cleaned ISIS's clocks by now.  Sometimes leaving bad enough alone really is the best solution (especially if there really aren't any weapons of mass destruction).

2.  It's not that long ago that John McCain was blasting President Obama for not helping the Syrian opposition, which mainly consisted of ISIS.  Now he's blasting President Obama for not going to war against ISIS.  Sometimes, leaving bad enough alone really is the best solution (especially if the choice really is between Bad Guy A and Bad Guy B).

3.  Of course, "the best solution" doesn't imply that there actually is a really good solution.  Sometimes there isn't.

4.  The older I get, the more convinced I become that the overwhelming majority of people in the world just want to quietly live their lives in peace and security, and would happily do so if they didn't keep getting stuck in the middle of one band of thugs or another.

5.  The majority of the world, who just want to quietly live their lives in peace and security, would consider money spent on education, infrastructure, medical and scientific research, and other quality of life stuff far better spent than the trillions of dollars spent on war over the past century.

6.  It's been said that people get the government they deserve.  I think that's nonsense.  There is absolutely nothing so bad, so horrible, so despicable that the poor people of Syria and Iraq could possibly have done that would be bad enough that they would deserve what they've got.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why Men Hate Going to Church

Why Men Hate Going to Church is the title of a book by David Murrow, which I just re-read.  Murrow's thesis is that the church doesn't do much for the needs of most men and that as a result, organized religion has largely become (or is in the process of becoming) a female institution (which is not necessarily the same thing as a feminist institution).  He argues that unless this trend is stopped, disaster looms, and the church has to do more to attract and keep men.  You can check out his Web site at

Let me posit an alternative theory, in two parts.

First, there is really no good reason to go to church unless you take the theology seriously:  God exists, you're not him, he has certain expectations for people's conduct which people are obligated to comply with.  If you don't believe that to be the truth, then there really isn't a good reason to go to church, since everything positive that the church does -- charity, building communities -- can be done equally as well, if not better, by secular institutions.  So the first reason men are dropping out of church in droves is that they never really did take the theology seriously.  That's also the reason, by the way, that liberal churches are dying at a much faster rate than conservative ones:  If the theology isn't true, then who needs church?

Frankly, I'm not sure that men as a group have ever taken the theology seriously, which segues into the second part:  For what may be the first time in the history of Western Civilization, there is simply no downside to not going to church.  Once upon a time, there was huge social pressure to go to church.  Being openly irreligious was bad for one's career, bad for one's social life, and bad for one's marriage prospects.  In places where there was no separation of church and state, the state often compelled that religion be practiced.

No more.  Even in the South, there are no longer any consequences for not being religious.  Even in the Bible belt, one is just as likely to see one's neighbors spending Sunday morning mowing the lawn, jogging, or going to brunch as one is to see them loading the kids into the car to go to church.  This phenomenon has accomplished many things, one of which is that the church has lost an awful lot of members who, by their own choice, never would have gone in the first place.  Which probably includes a lot of men.

So what we are really seeing is that for the first time, religion has to compete in the free market with all the other things a guy might enjoy doing on a Sunday morning, and it isn't doing very well.  Contrary to David Murrow, it isn't that guys are dropping out so much as that they never really were a part of it in the first place, and no longer feel the need to play charades.

Now, none of this should cause the true believers to lose so much as a wink of sleep.  If God exists and if his moral instructions must still be obeyed, then their task is to do what they think God wants them to do and not worry about what other people are doing (or, in this case, not doing).  That doesn't mean, though, that Murrow may not be right and the institutional church may not be headed in the direction of becoming mostly a women's club.  If so, that, too, will be a first in Western Civilization.  Being naturally curious, I only regret that at my age I'm not likely to live long enough to see the results.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Three Musketeers

I'm currently reading a 660-page book about the antics of Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, and Truman Capote, arguably three of the most influential openly-gay writers of the last century.  I'll sum it up for you so you don't have to read it yourself:  They were heavy abusers of drugs and alcohol, they were wildly promiscuous, they were mostly unhappy with their lives even though they had more money than the gross national products of some third-world countries, and the fights they had with each other (mostly because they were competing for the same men or the same literary rewards, or both) defined viciousness.  There are interesting stories and amusing tidbits here and there -- I did not know that Errol Flynn met his second wife when she was working at a courthouse snack counter during one of his statutory rape trials -- but in the main, that about sums it up.  I'm about halfway through and haven't decided yet if I'll finish it or not.

There seems to be a pattern that the most wildly successful among us are also the most wildly self destructive.  Examples abound, from all fields of human endeavor.  At this point, one almost expects someone at the pinnacle to possess some self destructive trait or other, and one starts to wonder if those who don't display such maladaptive traits are merely better at hiding it.  On the other hand, I haven't seen any empirical studies on it, so maybe this is just confirmation bias.  If it's not confirmation bias -- if there really is something about the personality required to achieve great things that carries with it a greater chance of self destruction -- then one wonders why that might be.

Once upon a time, I aspired to great things.  I wanted to be president.  I wanted to be chief justice of the Supreme Court.  I wanted to be chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.  And I didn't.  I found contentment doing useful, steady work that will never get my name in lights, but which gives me satisfaction and keeps food on my table.

A part of me still wishes I had accomplished great things.  But there are worse things than a quiet and peaceful existence.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Primary Day

John Conyers was first elected to Congress from Michigan in 1964, meaning he has been there now for going on fifty years.  If he wins re-election this year, he will be the longest-serving member of the US House of Representatives.

John Conyers nearly didn't make the ballot this year.  Michigan has a requirement that congressional candidates submit 1000 signatures to qualify for the ballot;  Conyers' efforts fell short.  And not just a little short; I believe that when the dust cleared he only had about 600 valid signatures.  That should have been the end of his candidacy.

It wasn't; Conyers succeeded in convincing a friendly judge that Michigan's signature law is unconstitutional.  So Conyers will be on the August 5 Michigan primary ballot.

If I lived in that district, I would not be voting for Conyers.  The fact that someone who has been in Congress for half a century is so grossly incompetent that he can't even put together enough of a political machine to collect a thousand signatures tells me that it's time for someone else to represent that district.  And in fact, Conyers does have a primary opponent who is making much of Conyers' inability to perform a simple political task like get enough valid signatures to be on the ballot.  The one time I ran for public office and needed a thousand signatures, it took me and a couple of volunteers a grand total of two Saturdays at the mall to collect them.  It makes one wonder how many other basic competencies that office is allowing to slip.

Dear Congressman Conyers:  It's time to go.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

We interrupt this trip to hell in a handbasket

.Gaza.  Ukraine.  Airplanes falling from the sky.  Children at the US-Mexican border.  82 shootings in Chicago in a single weekend.  ISIS sweeping across Iraq.  California on fire.  Yup, the world is going to hell in a handbasket, no question about it.

Or is it?

Fifty years ago, the United States and the USSR had nuclear missiles pointed at each other that could destroy each other, and much of the rest of the planet, in seconds.  They no longer do.

One hundred years ago, many Americans worked 16 hour days in factories and sweatshops and mines, and often died by age 40 from diseases caused by the chemicals they were exposed to.  That mostly no longer happens.

Crime rates are down.  Americans as a group are wealthier, healthier and better educated than we've ever been.  We're living longer.  Elder poverty is significantly down.

Worldwide, there are actually fewer wars ongoing right now than at most times in human history.  If Islam ever actually has a Renaissance and becomes a religion of peace, the number of wars could drop even further.

Worldwide, contagious disease, poverty and hunger are down.  They haven't been eradicated, but the cold, hard numbers show a trend in one direction only.

Maybe we are heading to hell in a handbasket.  It just seems to me that things should be getting a whole lot warmer than they seem to be if we are.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

If it sounds too bad to be true

PZ Myers does not like the men's rights movement.  In fact, it would be a fair statement that he finds it detestable.  On his blog, he routinely castigates it in language that fairly drips with scorn.  So, when someone sent him -- anonymously -- an article claiming to be written by an MRA advocate that stopped just short of endorsing pedophilia, if it didn't actually cross that line, Myers couldn't resist the bait.  He posted it to his blog and made sure that nobody missed the point that a men's rights advocate was also a pedophilia advocate.

Unfortunately, the article turned out to be a hoax.  The person initially claimed to have written it, hadn't written it.  It is unknown at this time if the article actually represents the viewpoint of someone who didn't have the courage to sign his own name to it, or if someone was merely yanking PZ's chain and the whole thing was someone's idea of a joke.  Whatever.

To his credit, when PZ realized he'd been had, he re-wrote the blog post.  You can read the re-written post here:

I'm not writing to criticize PZ (whom I agree with maybe half the time, and whose writing skills I admire even when I don't agree with him).  He fell into a trap that probably all of us have fallen into at one time or another; that of assuming the worst about a person or ideology with whom he disagrees.

It's a powerful temptation, for those who hold strong and passionate views about things, to assume that those on the other side are not merely misguided but evil.  It's a small step to go from there to a willingness to believe anything bad, and the worse the better, about those on the other side.  That's why my email inbox is routinely cluttered with spam from both right-wingers telling me that President Obama is a Marxist Muslim terrorist sympathizer who was born in Kenya and hates America, balanced only by mirror-image spam from left-wingers telling me that Republicans are Nazis who hate women and minorities and want to go back to the days of Dickens when children were chained to factory benches for 16 hours a day and didn't have health care.

Most such claims, on both sides, turn out to be pish-posh on closer analysis.  But it's oh-so-much-fun to believe they are true, and pass them on as gospel.  And oh-so-satisfying to share outrage with other gullible people who actually take such claims seriously.

Most people on both sides of most issues are basically decent human beings who simply see the world differently.  All of us are products of our past, our biases, our experiences and our presuppositions.  And taking the position that I'm right, and everyone who disagrees with me is Satan, not only requires a huge amount of hubris; it is also grossly unfair to honest people who honestly don't see it that way.

So.  You've heard the line that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't?  Well, the same thing is true in reverse:  If it sounds too bad to be true, chances are it probably isn't.  Remember that next time someone tries to turn this or that political or social issue into a battle between good and evil.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

An Open Letter to Governor Rick Scott

I see that you and Governor Crist are both running ads about your former legal problems with Medicare fraud.  As a voter, I did not hold that against you four years ago.  I figured that it was unfair to judge you for something that happened a long time ago without looking at what you’ve done in the meantime.

This year, however, is a different story.  This year, I’m inclined to hold it against you and refuse to vote for you specifically because of it.  And I thought it only fair to write and tell you why.

People make mistakes and should be permitted to make a fresh start, but on the condition that they cut other people who make mistakes the same slack.  That is the whole point of Matthew 7:2, which says that you will be held accountable to the same standard to which you hold other people.  And throughout your administration, you have refused to show the same grace and compassion to other people who have made mistakes that was shown to you.

One of your first acts after taking office was to lengthen the time that felons have to wait before they can petition to have their civil rights restored.  We both know that the only reason you’re not a convicted felon is that you had a lot of money to pay some very good lawyers to keep you out of jail.  It would be really nice if you could understand that people who didn’t have the money to avoid the legal consequences of their actions might like a fresh start too, and to give them a speedy opportunity to demonstrate that they, too, deserve a second chance.

 You have opposed restoring the right to vote to felons who have served their sentences, even though giving them a stake in their communities is far more likely to help make them productive citizens than making them pariahs will.  You have supported increasing the misery level for convicted sex offenders even though our ridiculously broad definition of sex offender sweeps up many people who pose no real threat to anyone else.  And you have signed death warrants at an even faster rate than your predecessor did.

 All of these show a common theme:  Everyone except you who screws up is not to be given a second chance, is not to be shown compassion, is not to be permitted a second chance.

 And if that’s your belief – that people who make mistakes don’t deserve second chances – then that’s fine, but that standard then has to apply to you as well.

 So, because of your history of Medicare fraud, I will not be voting for you.  Ever.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A fool's errand

It's a nice thought that people are fair and reasonable, and that disputes can be worked out by sitting down and working out one's differences.  A nice thought, that is, until one realizes that sometimes people aren't reasonable and they demand things that just aren't possible.  Such is the case in the Middle East.

On the one side, the Jews, on religious grounds, are claiming a right not just to be in the Middle East, but to a very specific piece of real estate in the Middle East.  God gave them to it, and that, to their mind settles it.

On the other side, the Arabs don't want any Jews in Palestine at all.

After a few minute of thinking this through, one realizes that it is impossible for both sides to get what they want.  Making one side happy requires making the other side very unhappy indeed.  Further, these demands are central, core demands that neither side considers to be negotiable.

That's why American attempts to bring peace to the Middle East are largely a fool's errand.  There will be no peace in the Middle East until one side or the other loses.  And there's not much America can do about it.

Oh wait, there is one thing America can do about it:  Quit pretending it's our fight.  After trillions of dollar, after spilling hundreds of barrels of American blood, we have nothing to show for it except the enmity and hatred of large numbers of people in the Middle East.  We need to get out of the Middle East.  We need to get out of the Middle East now.  And we need to let them sort it out themselves.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

We should have a contest

Whenever I think that some government employee has behaved so badly that no other government employee could possibly top them, another government employee comes along to prove me wrong.  Maybe we should have a contest for the most over-the-top vile behavior by an agent of the state.

Curtis Scherr is a Chicago police officer.  His 7-year-old granddaughter was dying of a brain tumor.  There was some reason to think that medical marijuana might be therapeutic, at least to the point of easing her pain.  So her mother, Scherr's daughter-in-law, began growing marijuana, from which she extracted cannabis oil, which did seem to alleviate some of the symptoms.

Scherr helped.  He helped her obtain the high-intensity lightbulbs necessary for growing pot indoors, and coached her on how to avoid detection by the police.  He helped tend the plants.  Unfortunately, Liza died.

A dispute broke out between Scherr and his daughter-in-law.  Scherr was Catholic; his daughter in law was Protestant, and Scherr was upset that it would not be a Catholic service.  He was also upset that his daughter in law omitted some relatives from the obituary, and even more upset that he was not permitted to take Liza's ashes from the funeral home.

Now, in most families, these disputes would resolve themselves in one of two ways.  Either people would work through them, or they would go their separate ways.  But Scherr was a police officer, and nobody, dammit, was going to tell him no.  So, he retaliated.

Officer Scherr, who himself had helped grow the marijuana, swore out a search warrant for his daughter in law's residence, claiming that he had seen 50 marijuana plants inside.  The judge issued a search warrant and, four days after the funeral, a dozen DEA agents descended on the house in search of drugs.  They didn't find any; since Liza's mother is neither a drug dealer nor a drug user, she discarded the marijuana plants when Liza died.  They did, however, cause intense grief and emotional upset to a bereaved mother who had buried her child only four days earlier.  No charges were filed.

Liza's mother sued Scherr.  The trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and earlier this week the US Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal.  You can read the decision here:  In a nutshell, under federal law, a police officer cannot be sued for having an ill motive so long as there really was probable cause to get a search warrant.  As a matter of law, I think that's right.  I don't have to like it.  She still has some state-court remedies she may pursue.  I wish her luck.

If I were the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, I would give her immunity from prosecution.  I would then get her to tell a grand jury that he helped with the grow operation, and I would then indict him on drug charges.  Even though I'm opposed to the war on drugs and normally disfavor prosecuting people for drugs, since he's the one who brought in the criminal justice system in the first place, let him answer for his role in the illegal activity.  And if I were the sentencing judge, I'd give him ten years.

Anyone who acts that despicably should share in the misery.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Of this we're very sure

I just finished an interesting column by a theologian I almost never agree with who was castigating his fellow conservatives for projecting milquetoast rather than certainty on controversial issues.  The example he gave is as follows:

"If some Christian is on television and is asked the baiting question as to whether homosexual practice is a sin, he will reply (if he is trying to hold the line in any fashion) that “yes, it is a sin, but all of us are sinners, and God makes no distinction between sins, and I myself am a sinner, and have sinned just this week in ways that are every bit as bad. And it’s only Monday.” What he ought to say is “yes, it is a sin. A very bad one. Kind of gross, if you think about it.”

"Now if he goes the former route, what is he trying to avoid? It is not the identification of homosexual sin as “sin.” He does that. What he is trying to avoid is his own sin, the “sin” of certainty, the sin of confidence, the sin of dogmatic pronouncement. The sin of acting as though God has spoken."

You can read the whole column here:

Please allow me to suggest that that is not the dynamic at work at all.  Not even close.  And it requires a certain amount of disingenuousness to suggest that what's going on is avoidance of dogmatism.

Most people want to be thought of as fair people who treat other people well.  True, there are some people who really do take pleasure in being scoundrels, but I think most people prefer being virtuous to being scurrilous.  And most people understand virtue to include treating other people they way that they would like to be treated.

One of the reasons for the sea change in public attitudes toward gay marriage in a relatively brief period of time was the realization that depriving people in a stable, long-term committed relationship the ability to obtain legal protection for that relationship was not treating people fairly.  Dumping all over people because of their sexual orientation is not behaving charitably.  Suggesting that people whose only real difference from everyone else is the gender of the person they choose to spend their lives with are beyond the equal protection of the law and the respect of their neighbors finally struck people as not being compatible with the American ideal of fair play for all.  And once people actually started thinking through just how unjust anti-gay prejudice is, it became harder and harder to make the case that the law should treat them differently.

And I think that when someone argues for anti-gay prejudice, deep down inside that person knows that he is doing something shameful.  Even if he doesn't think he is doing something shameful, he knows that the culture has shifted and a significant number of his friends, neighbors and relatives will think it's shameful.  And that's why these days there aren't nearly as many people willing to say, "Yes, it's a sin, a very bad one, and it's gross and disgusting too."  What's gross and disgusting is treating people like second class citizens because of the objects of their affection.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The First Amendment Has Two Religion Clauses

I've now read the Hobby Lobby decision.  I was prepared to hate it.  I now merely find it unpersuasive.  Alito did a much better job of defending his position than I expected him to (and I actually expected Scalia to be the one writing the opinion).  At the end of the day, though, there's a major policy problem that the Court did not address, that needs to be addressed.

The First Amendment contains two religion clauses:  Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion (the Establishment Clause), nor prohibit the free exercise thereof (the Free Exercise Clause).  Neither exists in a vacuum; they have to be read side by side.  Simply put, the first clause means the government can't give religion special favors and the second clause means the government can't give it special burdens.  It may neither treat religion favorably nor unfavorably.  Religion is a private matter, and religious belief should not result in either good treatment or bad treatment from the state.  The state is supposed to stay neutral on the subject.

I have enough libertarian instincts that I'm not entirely opposed, depending on the circumstances, to allowing people to have conscience exemptions from some laws at least some of the time.  But if the government is going to give conscience exemptions, it has to do so in an even-handed manner.  It shouldn't be giving them to religion but not to the non-religious.

Suppose an atheist starts a business.  Neither he nor his business will be entitled to any conscience exemption to any law that he finds morally objectionable.  It does not matter how deeply offensive and repulsive he may find a law to be, or how good a moral argument he can muster against it.  His conscience doesn't get him any favorable treatment.  He has to obey the law or face the consequences.

But let him come along and say that he has an objection based on a conversation he had with a ghost, and suddenly his objection becomes religious and gets all kinds of special treatment.

Now, I hasten to add that there are perfectly sound policy reasons not to give anyone a conscience exemption, because once that starts, anyone who doesn't want to pay taxes, or hire blacks, or refrain from sexually abusing children discovers some religious hook or other on which to hang his objections.  If I can ignore the speed limit just because my religion tells me to, then it won't take much for me to find a religious argument that I'm supposed to drive 90 miles an hour down I-90.

But if the government is going to start giving conscience exemptions, then it needs to play fair. Secular consciences are entitled to as much respect as religious ones.

Elections matter

I periodically hear the argument that the two major political parties are the same and it doesn't matter which one of them wins.  That argument has been around a while, back in 1968, George Wallace said there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between the major parties.

Today, the Supreme Court handed down two major decisions, both on 5-4 votes.  In one of them, they held that closely-held corporations with a religious objection to contraception can't be forced to purchase health insurance for their implies that includes contraception.  In another, they held that quasi-public employees can't be forced to join a union.  In both cases, the 5-4 split had all the Republicans on one side and all the Democrats on the other.

Without getting into the merits of either decision (neither of which I've finished reading yet), let me just say that if the two seats now held by Roberts and Alito (both George W. Bush appointees) had instead been filled by John Kerry, had Kerry won the 2004 election, both of these decisions would have come out differently.

So whether you like these decisions or hate them, elections do matter.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Just when you think they can't top themselves

One of the most important distinctions in constitutional law is between state actors (people who work for the government) and non-state actors (people who don't).  As a general rule, constitutional rights only apply to things done by the government.  The government cannot lock you up or fine you for exercising your First Amendment right to free speech, but your employer may still be able to fire you for it, assuming your employer isn't the government.  That is also true of many statutory rights; the Freedom of Information Act allows me to get records from the Pentagon but it does not allow me access to records from IBM or General Motors.  Put another way, you've got far more rights against the government than you do against most private parties.

Which explains why several Massachusetts police departments decided to incorporate as a private corporation.  The ACLU filed a lawsuit against various Massachusetts police organizations to obtain records relating to their SWAT teams -- how those people dressed like ninjas and armed like Taliban fighters who kick in people's doors, shoot their pets, throw everyone to the ground, point guns at peoples' heads and threaten to shoot them if they move, are selected, trained, and what rules they operate under.  Given the incredible amount of deadly firepower with which such teams are entrusted, one might think that the citizenry is entitled to know what kind of training they have and what their rules and regulations consist of.

But guess what -- private corporations aren't bound by public records laws, and aren't required to provide any such information to the public.  Hence the strategy of having the police departments become private corporations.

I certainly hope the courts don't allow this shenanigan to stand, though these days my faith in the courts' willingness to rein in police abuses is not high.  Post-9/11, the courts seem increasingly willing to give the police whatever they want.  It's a fairly blatant show of contempt for the citizens in whose name the police operate, breathtaking even by law enforcement standards.

That aside, this raises a number of interesting questions.  Because while it is true that government actors have to respect individual rights that private actors don't, it is also true that government actors get to do things that private actors don't.  For example:

If a group of heavily armed employees of a private corporation are coming through my front door, I have the right to shoot them in self defense, assuming I have enough firepower of my own.  Does this mean that police executing search warrants are now fair game for homeowners with guns?

If an employee of a private corporation locked me in a cell overnight, telling me I am not free to leave, I would have an excellent lawsuit for false imprisonment and possibly even kidnapping.  Does this mean that a police officer making an arrest can now be sued for false imprisonment?

When someone files a lawsuit claiming that a government employee -- often a police officer -- has violated that someone's legal rights, state actors are entitled to something called "qualified immunity", which means that making a lawsuit against the police stick is really, really hard and only rarely succeeds.  Have Massachusetts police officers now lost qualified immunity if they get sued?

Assuming the Massachusetts courts don't nip this private corporation nonsense in the bud, I sense a series of very interesting lawsuits about to be filed.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Maybe this one really means it

One of the charges often levied against religion by its detractors is that much of organized religion is a scam, designed to make money, wield political power, and hop in bed with power rather than speak truth to it.  And there are certainly enough bad actors in the religion business to make it a plausible charge.  I hasten to add that even if true, the charge tells us nothing about the truth of any particular religion; bad actors can and sometimes do promote causes that are themselves legitimate causes.

One of the worst actors in this respect has traditionally been the Catholic church.  There is a long, unseemly, and well-documented history of Vatican involvement with organized crime, corrupt bankers, and others who seemingly have little in common with the teachings of Jesus.  In 1982, Roberto Calvi, who had been dubbed "God's banker" because of the close ties between his bank and the Holy See, either committed suicide or was murdered just as prosecutors were closing in on the money laundering Calvi had long been doing for the Italian Mafia.  The Catholic official who headed the Vatican Bank at the time, Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, reportedly shrugged and said, "Oh, well, you can't run the church on Hail Marys."

Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, a now deceased archbishop of New York, Francis Cardinal Spellman, was known in the Vatican as "Cardinal Moneybags" because of his habit of showing up in Rome twice a year with millions of dollars in cash, much of which came from the New York mob.  Cardinal Spellman was also known to enjoy the company of underage male prostitutes; his Boston colleague Richard Cardinal Cushing once had to get him out of a spot when he picked up a teenage male hooker on a trip to Beantown.  (And speaking of memorable quotations, Cardinal Cushing was fond of saying, "My dear departed mother, may she rest in peace, could neither read nor write, but she could certainly handle a dollar, and so, thank God, can I.")

Enter Pope Francis.  Pope Francis got his white cap when his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, decided to retire early, in part because of scandals leaking out of the Vatican that he was unable to control.  I was a bit surprised at the choice; Francis was then 76 years old and, in light of the many challenges the Holy See was facing, I expected someone young and vigorous.

He may not be young, but he has certainly shown himself to be vigorous, at least where looking after the church's ethics is concerned.  In a little more than a year, he has fired virtually the entire hierarchy of the Vatican Bank and replaced them with reformers.  He has fired at least two bishops for leading too lavish a lifestyle on the church's dime.  He himself gave up the sumptuous papal apartments in favor of more monastic living.  And today, he publicly excommunicated the entire Italian Mafia, despite the huge financial contributions the Mafia has given the church over the years.  Just for good measure, he told the bishops to stop harping on social issues and start feeding the poor.  And his first appointments to the College of Cardinals, the body that will ultimately choose his successor, mostly appear to be reformers as well.

I don't agree with Pope Francis on everything, but this first 16 months has certainly been promising.  Maybe Rome is finally under the stewardship of a shepherd who actually understands not only that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, but also understands why.  Maybe St. Peter finally has a successor willing to tell the rich young ruler that he lacks but one thing, and that he should give what he has to the poor and then follow Jesus.  Maybe the Servant of the Servants of God actually gets that power was meant to be used in the service of others.

If so, I wish him a long and successful papacy.

Monday, June 16, 2014

What if they gave a coup and no one cared?

I'm reading a very interesting book right now on why the United States has managed to survive going on 250 years without having a military coup.  For those of us who live in a place where the rule of law has been followed more or less for nearly two and one-half centuries, it's easy to forget that there are places in the world where the military routinely deposes elected leaders, or where the leaders come to power in the first instance at the point of a gun.  Bolivia once had six presidents in seven days.

The author offers a number of possible reasons for why we have enjoyed a relatively stable period of democratic rule, and his thoughts on the subject are all very interesting, but I have a different question:  Suppose the United States did have a military coup.  How many people would actually care?

Americans give lip service to valuing freedom, but have traditionally been willing to give it up at more or less the drop of a hat.  A society that actually valued freedom would have ejected the TSA from its airports a long time ago.  A society that actually valued freedom would not allow that organized armed robbery racket known as civil forfeiture to continue, and probably would have shut down the war on drugs too.  It seems that whenever some politician can make even a quasi-plausible claim that there's a threat looming on the horizon, people line up to exchange freedom for security, and that's even before someone chimes in with "will no one think of the children".  Shame on us.

So, if whomever staged such a coup promised security and kept food on people's dinner tables, how many people would actually care?  Sadly, I suspect not that many.  Though I hope to never find out if I'm right.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

More Unintended Consequences

Saddam Hussein was a bad dude, and the world is a better place for his no longer being here.  He used chemical weapons against his own people.  Even by the standards of the Middle East his brutality was astounding.  He had megalomaniac aspirations of empire.  Few mourn his passing.

He was also good at suppressing groups like the Taliban and Al-Quaeda within his borders.  He understood that radical Islam was a huge threat to his own power, so he was willing to use whatever means were necessary to prevent radical Islam from gaining a foothold.  And he succeeded.

This week, we are seeing the military forces of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, sweep toward Baghdad.  If they are successful, Iraq will join Pakistan and Afghanistan as being governed by religious extremists.  The suffering of every day Iraqis will be horrendous, and yet another country will be a launching point for Islamist terror.  Unless you want to watch the world on fire, this is not a happy development.

Which brings us back to Hussein.  As bad as he was, his one positive was seeing to it that groups like ISIS did not come to power.  If he were still alive and running Iraq, the ISIS sweep across the nation would not be happening.  If ISIS succeeds in turning Iraq into another Islamist hell, no small thanks will be due to President Bush for having removed Hussein from power.  Removing Hussein from power also had the unintended consequence of fairly horrific persecution of Iraqi Christians and Jews, who had lived there in relative peace and safety under Hussein but who have all now been killed or driven out of the country.

None of which is to suggest that Hussein was a good guy.  He wasn't.  Just better than what Bush's war left in his place.

Two hundred years ago, George Washington wisely warned us to avoid foreign entanglements.  Failing to heed his words has brought us, and often much of the rest of the world, misery upon misery.  Sometimes leaving bad enough alone really is the best choice.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A bishop who can't keep doves and serpents straight

Jesus said that his followers should be "as wise as serpents, and as harmless as doves."  Today, we have an example of the followers of Jesus instead being as wise as doves and as harmless as serpents.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of St. Louis just testified in a deposition that he did not know that it was illegal for priests to have sex with children.  You can see it here:

Now, let us assume that he is telling the truth and that he really didn't know that it's illegal for adults -- priests or not -- to have sex with children.  Let us assume this even though it defies all common sense to believe that a college-educated church official wouldn't know what should be obvious to anyone smarter than a houseplant.  What then?

Legal or not, does anyone seriously think that a decent human being would have sex with children?  At that point, the archbishop's argument becomes that the behavior was despicable but it wasn't illegal.  Is that really the standard to which an institution like the Catholic Church should be held?  Despicable but not illegal?

We expect better than that from children, never mind the adults charged with their care.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Do you, now?

Fay Vincent was a promising athlete who did something monumentally stupid when he was a college freshman.  Some of his dorm mates decided to play a joke on him by locking him in his room.  Vincent opened the window, climbed out on the ledge, and attempted to follow the ledge to the window of the next room.  He slipped, fell four stories, and suffered severe injuries that ended his athletic career.

Vincent went on to become a successful lawyer, and a commissioner of baseball.  Whenever the subject of his injuries comes up, he has always carefully placed the blame only on himself.  He once told a class he was teaching that "there's a certain ruthless sense of honesty about life.  And that is that when you make a mistake, you pay."  

In one sense, Vincent is right. When I look back over my own successes and failures -- and I've had plenty of both -- an awful lot of the failures were caused by bad choices, no doubt about it.  If I want to put a spin on it, I can usually find someone to blame for things that have gone wrong, but then when I stop spinning and honestly face facts, only rarely has someone else been more culpable for my shortcomings than I have.  And as a matter of public policy, you don't want to give people easy outs to blame others for stuff that they could have prevented themselves, because you want people to prevent what they can, even if it's somebody else's fault or somebody else could have prevented it too.

On the other hand, some people are better at avoiding the consequences of their bad choices than others.  And it's not always clear in advance that a choice is a bad choice.  What made climbing onto the ledge a bad choice for Vincent is that he didn't make it to the next window; had he made it to the next window, it would have been a mildly amusing dorm story rather than a life-changing disaster.  If it were predictable in advance where a particular choice would lead, there would be no bad marriages, no drug addicts, and no one in prison.

So Mr. Vincent, cut yourself some slack.  My guess is you've probably already punished yourself far too much for what your youthful lapse in judgment actually deserved.  And sometimes, it's only by cutting ourselves some slack that we can cut other people slack.

An Open Letter to Commissioner Selig

Dear Commissioner Selig:

When Pete Rose was banned from baseball for life back in 1989, I agreed with the decision.  The potential harm he could have done to the game by gambling on his own team was enormous. Baseball, like law, depends to a certain extent on the integrity of the players, and those who have demonstrated they can't play by the rules should make a living doing something else.

The problem that baseball now has is that people whose bad conduct actually did -- as opposed to potentially -- hurt the game through their steroid use were not given lifetime bans.  I don't have the documents in front of me, but my recollection is that the harshest suspension handed down to the substance abusers whose drug use really and truly did impact on the scores, the stats, and the game's reputation, was for fifty games.

I cannot for the life of me understand how it is fair to keep in place a lifetime ban on someone whose conduct merely could potentially have harmed the game, while giving term suspensions to players whose conduct actually did harm the game.

Please pardon Pete on your way out.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The feds are not as needed as they think

Today, the United States Supreme Court decided United States v. Boone.  Ms. Boone was a wronged wife; her husband fathered a child with another women.  Some women would have filed for divorce; others would have stayed and tried to make the best of it.  Ms. Boone, a biologist, decided to expose her husband's paramour to toxic chemicals.

She stole some chemicals from the Philadelphia laboratory where she worked and left them where she thought Mistress Babymama would touch them and injure herself:  On Babymama's doorknob, inside her mailbox, and in her car.  Only she wasn't very good at it; the chemical she chose is bright orange, and Babymama figured out something was wrong before injuring herself.  The worst she suffered was a minor rash on one of her thumbs.

All right, jilted spouses have been doing nasty things to the other woman (and the other man) for centuries, and so far the only thing that even makes this an interesting story is that the wife had the technical knowledge to try chemicals, even though her implementation skills apparently left something to be desired.  Charge her with stalking, or battery; get a restraining order; give her probation; and be done with it, right?

Wrong. The feds literally decided to turn it into a federal case and charged her with the terroristic use of chemical weapons.

Today, the United States Supreme Court held that this was an abuse of the statute, and vacated her conviction (but not until she had already spent six years in prison).  Six justices interpreted the statute in such a way so as not to cover her conduct.  Three justices thought the statute, as written, did cover her conduct but would have found the statute unconstitutional.  No justice thought she belonged in a federal prison, even while acknowledging that what she did was not acceptable behavior.

And this brings us to the point of today's piece:  Congress has done entirely too much federalizing of criminal behavior the states are perfectly capable of handling themselves.  Does Pennsylvania not have laws against this sort of thing?  Of course it does; the Supreme Court cited three different Pennsylvania criminal statutes that might apply.  But federal law, like Topsy, just grows.  And grows.  And grows some more.  Today, the federal criminal code has exploded with things that used to be considered state and local matters, if they were crimes at all.

What does this mean in practice?  By one study, the average mostly-law-abiding American commits three federal crimes a week.  There are literally so many federal criminal statutes and regulations that it is impossible to keep up with, never mind comply with, all of them.  The old adage about ignorance of the law is no excuse may have made sense when there weren't many laws and the average citizen could be expected to know what was and was not illegal, but when a tax lawyer has to read an arcane section of the tax code multiple times -- and then research if there are any cases about it -- before being able to answer a client's simple question about whether his conduct is illegal, something is wrong.

In 1954, a Coloradan named John Gilbert Graham decided to murder his mother for insurance money.  She was flying from Denver to Seattle, so he put a bomb in her luggage that exploded mid-flight, causing the plane to crash, killing all 44 people aboard.

If that happened today, the feds would land before the airplane had crashed and would spend a million federal tax dollars -- and months if not years if not decades -- investigating and prosecuting.  In 1954, the State of Colorado had Graham tried, convicted and executed in a little more than a year, with no help from the feds whatsoever.  Local authorities know how to handle mass murder, even if the murder weapon happens to be an airplane.

So let me offer a modest proposal:  Alternating sessions of Congress should be repeal sessions, in which no new laws are passed; only repealed.  It would probably take about ten years to get the federal code down to a manageable size, even at that.  But it would be a start.

Feds, I hate to break it to you, but you're not nearly as needed as you think you are.

Friday, May 30, 2014

On Rehabilitation

What is the extent to which words, customs, practices and music with unsavory pasts are permitted to overcome those unsavory pasts and be rehabilitated?

There's a beautiful piece of music by Haydn.  Christians who attend churches that still sing traditional hymns would recognize it as the tune for "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken," and Christians have been singing it to those words for 200 years.  When Hitler came to power, that tune became the tune of the Nazi national anthem.  Today, the Nazi national anthem has been grandly forgotten -- I'd be surprised if one German in a thousand could recite the words to it -- and Christians continue to sing Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.  Some would say that the tune's use by the Nazis precludes it from being used in polite society.  Others would say that the world does not deserve to be robbed of a  beautiful piece of music just because it was appropriated by the Nazis.  If you want to hear what it sounds like, you can listen to it here:

What about Halloween?  Today, it is a silly children's holiday.  Once upon a time, it was a fairly bloody pagan religious ritual.  Its celebration was forbidden in the deeply religious home in which I was raised, in part for that reason.  Why should we celebrate an event that at one time caused much suffering?  On the other hand, there is no one alive who remembers that past, so should we deprive ourselves of what is today a bit of harmless fun for children?  The candy industry certainly hopes not.

Remember Yosemite Sam from the Buggs Bunny/Road Runner Hour?  Sam loved to cuss, and one of his favorite expressions was "cotton picking."  As in "ya cottin pickin varmint."  That term is of racist origin; it disparages the Black slaves who picked cotton in the South.  Probably none of the children watching Saturday morning cartoons in the 1960s and 70s made the connection.  A few of their parents might have made the connection.  But for most, it was simply a silly cartoon character saying silly things.

Reasonable minds may differ on the question, and it probably needs to be considered case by case.  But I'm of the mind that the better plan is to take power over words and music by not allowing their past to dictate our present.  Just because Hitler enjoyed Haydn's music doesn't mean I can't.  Just because slaves were disparaged doesn't mean I can't take some pleasure by watching a Yosemite Sam rerun on You Tube.

By doing so, we tell yesterday's bigots that we are stronger than they are; that while they are dust and ashes, we will transform their malevolence into joy.

There was once a restaurant that, in the 1950s, had a sign that said "No faggots allowed."  Time passed, and eventually the restaurant was sold to a gay man, who decided not to take down the sign.  He transformed it into a restaurant with a mostly gay clientele, and he still didn't take the sign down.  He left it up because every day the business opened with a gay owner and a mostly gay staff and a mostly gay clientele, was a day that he and his staff and his clientele were giving the finger to the sign and its previous homophobic owner.  Kind of like a dog taking a leak on a sign that says "No dogs."

The sign isn't there any more; a bunch of humorless bureaucrats from the local human rights commission didn't see it that way and made him remove it.  Pity.  I liked his message so much better.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

There's hubris, and then there's hubris

The State of Illinois indicted Esteben Martinez for two violent crimes.  Unfortunately for the state, its two witnesses disappeared (or so the State claimed; how hard the State actually looked for them is another question).  After granting the State several continuances over a period of months so it could try to find its witnesses, trial was finally scheduled for May 17, 2010.

In the words of the United States Supreme Court, Esteben's counsel was ready; the State was not.  After giving the State most of the morning to get its witnesses to court, the judge denied yet another continuance and swore in the jury.  The State told the Court that it would not participate in the trial.

Let that sink in for a minute.  What, one supposes, would happen if a criminal defendant told the Court that it was not going to participate in the trial?  That's not a hard question: the trial would take place anyway, the defendant would almost certainly be convicted since the only side to the story the jury heard was the prosecution's, and the conviction would be upheld on appeal.  Trials don't stop because one side or the other decides to take its toys and go home.  Just for good measure, a sufficiently irritated judge might even have held defense counsel in contempt.

And in substance, that is what happened to the State.  After the State refused to make an opening argument or call any witnesses, the defense moved for a directed verdict of not guilty.  In laymen's terms, that means that the State, which has the burden of proof, hasn't even offered enough for the case to go to the jury and so the judge simply enters a finding of "not guilty".  The State granted the defendant's motion, found him not guilty of both counts, and sent him on his way.

And there the story should have ended, but for one minor detail:  Prosecutors sometimes have a bad case of thinking the rules don't apply to them.  They're special.  They're privileged.  And if they want to take their toys and go home in the middle of a trial, well, they're entitled.  And so the State appealed.

Now, readers familiar with the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Bill of Rights will immediately wonder how the State even has the ability to appeal.  In America, once the defendant has been found not guilty, that's the end of it, right?  The State can't retry someone who has been acquitted, right?  Yeppers, that's what I thought too.

So the State came up with a fairly clever argument:  Since the State hadn't put on the case, the defendant was never really in any danger of being convicted, and so there is no double jeopardy.  The first trial didn't count because it wasn't a real trial.

You can read the U.S. Supreme Court's smackdown of that argument here:

But here's the kicker:  The reason this case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in the first place, is that the Illinois Supreme Court bought the argument.  The highest court in the State of Illinois actually fell for that argument, hook, line and sinker.  Which brings us to the point of this post.

Lawyers will do what they can get away with.  The prosecutors made that dog of an argument because they thought there was a shot that the appellate courts might go along with it, and in a way, one really can't fault them for trying.  And, so far as the Illinois courts were concerned, they were right.  The Illinois courts were prepared to let the prosecution get away with pooping all over the trial court by refusing to participate in the proceedings and then demanding a do-over, something no criminal defense attorney would dare try.

Almost daily, one reads dreary story after dreary story in the press about innocent people wrongfully convicted because the police or prosecution lied, hid evidence, fabricated evidence, whatever.  Seldom are there consequences, except for the poor sap who sat in jail for ten years waiting to be exonerated.  Which is how the "we're entitled" mentality takes root in the first place.

I do blame the courts for letting them get away with it.  Lawyers may do what they can get away with, but it is the job of a judge to set outer limits on what they can get away with.  The Illinois courts failed miserably in that respect.  Thankfully the U.S. Supreme Court stepped up to the plate.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Our sociopathic leadership

Someone emailed an article to me about a claimed link between sociopathy and being an elected official.  I don't know if there really is a link between public office and being a sociopath.  Intuitively that would seem right, if for no other reason that just that it takes a certain personality type to want that kind of job in the first place.  So let us assume that there is a link between sociopathy and public office and ask the next question:  Is that a bad thing?

A president's job description is to deal with crooks and scoundrels, of both the congressional and the global political variety.  We have an incredibly cumbersome political system in which even having the president's party control both houses of Congress is no guarantee that the president will get Congress to pass the legislation that he wants.  Given those two realities, maybe sometimes being a sociopath is the only way to get something done.  Part of the reason FDR was such an effective president is that he was so very adept at both using deception and abusing power.

Contrast FDR with the basically decent but woefully incompetent Jimmy Carter.  Had our embassy in Iran been seized when FDR was in power, he would have turned Teheran into a moonscape; just ask the people of Dresden, a city FDR incinerated on far less provocation.  Having defeated Iran militarily, he then would have given Iran a pro-Western government rather than permit the ayatollahs to plunge it back into the Middle Ages.  Yes, people would have died but a clear message that it's not acceptable to seize an American embassy would have been delivered, and today, Iran might actually be a free society that doesn't threaten to destabalize the entire region.

Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, was so loathe to use the military that he preferred to allow the United States to be humiliated for 444 days.  He was determined that no one would die, and he was also mindful that some of the Iranian's grievances against the United States had some merit.  While that may give him points for being a decent human being, it's no way to run a government.  Thirty years later, the emboldened ayatollahs are threatening the region with a nuclear weapons program, funding terrorism, and suppressing the civil liberties of their own people.

There is something to be said for being a decent human being.  But given a choice between the decidedly ethically challenged FDR and the fine human being Jimmy Carter, I'll take FDR any day.  We live in the world we actually live in, not the one we wish we lived in.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

This time, it really is a conspiracy

Since the war on drugs and the war on terror began competing with each other for which one could turn the United States into a police state first, there have been so many dreary stories of government treating people badly, unconstitutionally, and even despicably, that one might think they've reached the point where they can't even top themselves any more.  Well, one would be wrong.

On May 7, 2014, the DEA and the border patrol raided a small business in Alpine, Texas, which they contended was selling illegal drugs.  They also raided an apartment in the same building that belonged to someone unconnected to the business and for which they did not have a warrant.  The business owners were arrested on a number of charges, including both drug charges and resisting the officers during the raid.

The business owners claimed that the police had no valid warrant, that the police violently abused them, and that they were singled out for the raid because of their ethnicity.  The police deny this.  Such allegations are common when the police conduct raids.  Sometimes they are true and sometimes they are not.  Sometimes the police do abuse their authority; sometimes people already engaged in criminal behavior claim abuse to gain a tactical advantage at trial.  So, what we have at the moment is charges on both sides that have not been proven.  The business owners have not been convicted of any crimes, and the police have not been shown to have violated the business owners' rights.  So far, so good.

Enter Judge B. Dwight Goains.  Judge Goains conducted a bond hearing to determine if the business owners would be released pending trial.  He granted them bond, but on one condition:  That they recant their allegations that the police had no warrant, abused them, or singled them out for prosecution.  You can read the order, in all of its unloveliness, here:

Determining whether the police violated their rights is why we have trials, not bond hearings.  And it's difficult to imagine a bond order that violates more provisions of the Bill of Rights:  Free speech, due process, right to bail, right to trial by jury, just for starters.  Even honest judges make mistakes, but this is no mistake.  This is a conspiracy between the judiciary and law enforcement to ensure that these women cannot get a fair trial, and cannot sue the police after the fact.  That it was extorted by forcing them to make the recantation under threat of sitting in jail until they did makes it that much more deplorable.  If I were president, I would seriously consider intervening and ordering the charges dropped.  Judge Goains is unfit for the bench.

Once upon a time I was agnostic on the war on drugs.  While I had some concerns about giving the police too much power and the right of adults to make choices, at the same time I recognized the damage drugs do, especially in the inner city.

But no more.  After watching thirty years of increasing police power, often unchecked, and at the expense of constitutional rights, I have come to the conclusion that living in a free society is incompatible with the war on drugs.  We can have one or the other; we cannot have both.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

On holding morally accountable those who lack free will

I am somewhat skeptical that free will exists.  I think there may be some free will around the edges of minor things that don't matter much, but that most of a person's major decisions were made for him.  Part of it is genetics, but part of it is upbringing, life experiences, psychological predispositions, and other things over which an individual has little control.

Believing that, it's easier for me to be forgiving of people who do even atrocious things.  I see them as deeply bruised human beings with design defects.  I suspect that in his heart of hearts, Hitler probably really did believe that Germany would be better off without all those Jews, and that Southern slave owners probably really did think that slavery was a part of the natural order, not to be messed with.  Yet I still hold them morally accountable for the evil that they did.

How can this be?  If Charles Manson is no more than an automaton guided by the passions of his nature, then how is it fair to punish him?

Because the fact that an individual may be hard wired toward certain beliefs or conduct doesn't mean that the hard wiring can't be changed.  One of the things that comes from being human is the capacity to do self-assessments; to review one's life and ask probing questions.  Not only is it possible; it is desirable.  The older I get, the more I come to believe that the essence of ethics is the willingness to confront oneself with uncomfortable questions.

Having to live with the consequences of one's past is a powerful tool in causing that kind of self-analysis.  If one learns that acting in certain ways will result in social ostracism, loss of economic opportunities, loss of important personal relationships, or, at the extreme, possibly even loss of liberty, a rational actor is going to at least ask the question if the behavior is worth it.  If the answer is no, this can lead to changes in behavior.  It can lead to changes in the behavior of other people who witness the consequences of that behavior.

I consider myself neither a true liberal nor a true conservative.  One of the reasons I'm not a true liberal is my willingness to allow people to fail.  If the consequences of success and the consequences of failure are the same, then there is no reason for anyone to ever ask if their lives are turning out the way they want, and to make any necessary changes.  If Ted Bundy and Martin Luther King hold the same social esteem and enjoy the same prospects for a happy and prosperous life, then a major incentive to be good has disappeared.