Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The Thinker

Not quite ready for Hillary

To no one’s surprise, Hillary Clinton is planning to finally confirm that yes, she is running for president in 2016. This will happen probably via a Twitter post tomorrow that will link to a video of her announcement. Officially she’s been undecided, but given all the backstage machinations going on within the Clinton camp it’s been obvious for months if not years that she was going to run. Thence she will be off on a listening tour. She has learned from previous campaigns that she does better when she is not giving speeches and when she is seen as relatable.

I hope I am not the only one out there feeling underwhelmed. It’s not that I can’t support her for president, particularly since there is not a sane Republican running for president. Hillary for President sounds about as exciting to me as a bowl of mushy oatmeal for breakfast. Maybe it’s good for me but most mornings I don’t want to eat it. I’m not sure who I am looking for, but it’s not Hillary Clinton.

For most on the Democratic left, the choice would be Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA), who will soon be my senator. I could get behind her of course if she were going to run, which she is not, even though I doubt she would be an effective president. She has been quite clear about not wanting to run for president. Hillary is not quite without competition. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley is running, some say in the hope to end up on her ticket. Former Republican governor of Rhode Island and Democratic senator Lincoln Chafee sounds like he will be running. And former Virginia senator Jim Webb sounds like he might do the same.

O’Malley is definitely politically left but is otherwise uninspiring. Lincoln Chafee is virtually unknown outside his tiny home state. Jim Webb is an intriguing possibility. He was a decent if unconventional senator, without much in the way of accomplishments for his six years in the senate, but with lots of interesting ideas that succumbed to the usual partisanship. Webb seemed happy to leave after a single term. However, Webb likes to flit from thing to thing. Flitting with the presidency is his current thing. He would be the closest thing to a non-controversial and mainstream candidate that the Democrats could nominate. Hillary brings baggage.

With Hillary I think: Is this really the best we can do? Perhaps so. Hillary hits all the right demographics. She is broadly popular, particularly among women. She is well known and won’t surprise us. We know all her dirt and in particular we know all of her husband’s dirt. We have seen her as First Lady, senator, candidate and secretary of state. As First Lady she was seen as uppity and controversial. As a senator she learned to be toned down and conventional. She also made some really bad calls, such as voting for the Iraq War resolution. As a candidate in 2008 she ran an overly scripted, haughty and very flawed campaign that was as exciting as, well, my bowl of morning oatmeal. Her only real political success was as our Secretary of State. That’s not a bad asset to bring to the presidency. Like it or not, foreign policy will occupy much of the next president’s time. It’s not something that voters will care much about.

What does she bring to a campaign? She brings an I’m not one of those nutty Republicans, pretty much any of whom with the possible exception of Jeb Bush are unelectable. Mostly she brings the undeniable fact that she is a woman with a serious chance of winning her party’s nomination. Seeing the mess so many men have made of the presidency, we’d like to see a female in that post in the hopes that she would bring more pragmatism and common sense to the office. Certainly the tone would be different, wouldn’t it?

Perhaps but tone doesn’t change much. The power dynamics will not change much when Obama exits stage right and if Clinton enters stage left. The senate has a decent chance of returning to Democratic control in 2016, but unless there is a huge wave election for Hillary the House will stay with the GOP. Districts are too tightly gerrymandered for a switch there. Democrats really have to hope they can win sufficient power in key states in 2020 when the next census takes place. Any first term for Hillary Clinton would look a lot like Obama’s current term.

So electing Hillary certainly won’t solve the gridlock in Congress or change the overall political dynamics. It would not surprise me if Republican misogyny toward Hillary replaces their obvious racism toward Obama. Clinton would certainly do her best to keep the status quo in place: no major changes on the Supreme Court or changed to entitlements. In that sense her presidency would feel comfortable. The biggest political problem today is actually within the Republican Party. They don’t know what they stand for. The libertarians and Wall Street Republicans loathe the social conservatives and visa versa. The party refuses to come down to earth and wants to chase bogeymen and impossible goals. Just like modern Christianity bears no resemblance to the religion Jesus founded, today’s Republican party bears no resemblance to Ronald Reagan’s vision of the party. It’s become impossibly twisted and bizarrely out of the mainstream.

A vote for Hillary is really a vote for more of the same, which is not necessarily bad given that with the reigns of power Republicans would likely be doing insane things like turning over our national parks to the private sector. However, there is nothing compelling about her candidacy, nothing to inspire voters other than she is a woman, and no coherent and inspiring message to rally around. The power of such a message should not be discounted. It provided a mandate for Barack Obama in 2008 and both a Democratic House and Senate. Real change happens when people have a strong motivation to vote, not just for a candidate, but also for candidates supporting a distinct and credible platform.

Given Clinton’s cautious nature, we are likely to see more of her 2008 campaign. It is likely to be carefully scripted and stage-managed. It will be a cautious and focus group tested campaign rather than a bold one. If Hillary were a man instead of a woman, would any of us vote for her with the same interest and enthusiasm? I doubt it. She would be another milquetoast Martin O’Malley, but much more centrist and likely less inspiring.

So I’m not ready for Hillary. I probably never will be. I can’t see myself voting for any of the crazy Republican candidates. If she wins the nomination she will likely get my vote. Unless she can demonstrate a passion and a compelling vision I’ve never seen from her I’ll probably dutifully vote for her. I just won’t feel inspired doing so.

 
The Thinker

Indiana tries the “freedom of religion” ruse

States are starting to learn that while they have the power to legislate against people they don’t like, it’s generally not a good idea to use it.

The latest case in point, of course, is the State of Indiana. Its governor Mike Pence recently unwisely signed into law a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”. It essentially gives both individuals and businesses the “freedom” to tell someone they don’t like to piss off in the name of their freedom of religion. Interviewed Sunday, Governor Pence poorly tried to defend the law. He claimed it was misunderstood, and that it was virtually the same as a 1993 federal freedom of religion law with the same name.

The federal law was never intended to allow organizations to discriminate based on freedom of religion. However, the Supreme Court has had some interesting interpretations of the law. In 2006 it ruled that the law did not apply to the states, so it is curious that Pence would use the federal law to defend his state’s law. And in 2014 it ruled in the case of the Affordable Care Act that it allowed “closely held corporations” to not include contraceptive coverage in their employee health insurance plans. Presumably this logic was okay because earlier in its widely reviled Citizens United decision, the court decided that since earlier courts had declared corporations were people then corporations could not be prohibited from giving unlimited sums of money to political campaigns because free speech could not be constrained.

At best, Indiana’s law is distantly related to the federal law. Indiana’s new law is allowing anyone including any corporation, business or institution to declare that its religious freedom gives it the right to deny service to anyone that it finds violate their religious beliefs. This is in effect anything they choose to declare as a religious belief. The primary targets of the law, as documented by the photos of bigots behind the Governor Pence when he signed the law, are anticipated to be gays, lesbians and transgender people. Essentially the law is a license to discriminate collectively by both individuals and non-governmental organizations under the guise of freedom of religion.

The howls of protest were immediate and appear to be unrelenting. Angie’s List is one business threatening to move out of the state. Apple CEO Tim Cook decried the law in a Washington Post editorial today. Connecticut won’t let its employees travel to Indiana because it doesn’t want to even indirectly be associated with their bigotry. The NCAA is wishing it had time to move the Final Four playoffs to a different city. These are just some of the most notable responses to the law. There are plenty of others easy enough to find if you scan the news.

While Indiana is hardly the only red state to pass a law like this (Arkansas recently enacted something similar, and is getting a backlash), the track record for these laws suggests only foolish states would pass laws like these. You may recall that Arizona passed its own version of this law a few years back, to howls of protests and a huge loss of business. Eventually, they saw the light and repealed the law. It’s not hard to predict that within a few weeks Indiana is likely to do the same. No matter how right they think they are in their convictions, the national scorn and more importantly the loss of economic opportunity in the state will force a change of heart. Right now there is talk of an amendment to the law, which probably won’t change its substance or satisfy any of its critics.

In general, red states seem to be continually refighting the Civil War, just via its state legislatures, and this Indiana law is the latest skirmish. It all comes down to one thing: they think certain “better” people have license to make the “worse” people miserable. Their successes are principally a result of the tacit or explicit approval by the Supreme Court when these laws come up for review. One recent success was the court’s overturning of aspects of the Civil Rights Act that required federal approval of voting laws in principally southern states. The rest of America, and actually much of the south itself, has rejected bigotry. The reason many southern states haven’t caught on is because voting districts are so heavily gerrymandered that the citizens cannot speak with sufficient force.

Aside from the obvious bigotry, what drives most of us nuts about Indiana’s law is that these legislatures don’t understand that your freedom of religion does not give you the right to restrict other’s freedoms. Freedom doesn’t work that way. In fact, this is the antithesis of actual freedom. If you can allow a baker to not sell a wedding cake to a gay couple because it is against his religious beliefs as he interprets it, the same baker could refuse to sell one to a mixed race couple using a similar rationalization. A closely held bus corporation could say that their religion requires blacks to sit on the back of the bus, or to not allow any blacks on their buses. God is telling them so! “Freedom of religion” could selectively trump any sort of public law, which would render these laws unenforceable. Yet a law must apply uniformly or it is not a law. Instead it becomes no more than a hope that everyone will play nice.

Certainly freedom gives everyone the right to be a bigot. No one can control what you believe, although law can regulate your actions. Employers cannot discriminate in employment based on lots of criteria including sex and race and that includes closely held corporations with deeply religious CEOs like Hobby Lobby.

What’s clearly going on is that freedom of religion is being used as a proxy to effectively change laws that otherwise could only be changed via a process of law. If we really want to deny blacks their voting rights, it has to be done legally. And our Supreme Court apparently believes onerous voter ID laws are constitutional exercises in the legitimate power of the state because it’s not 1960 anymore. It thus effectively legalized bigotry in that instance.

In reality, no state or jurisdiction has the right to pass any legislation that exempts anyone from uniform application of the law. It’s so important we created a constitutional amendment specifically to require this: the 14th amendment. Legally it is clear: the 14th amendment specifically applies to all the states, which means that if a state grants the freedom to one group to effectively oppress or discriminate against another group, it is not just a violation of the law, it is against our constitution.

It is this bedrock principle that the vast majority of Americans are recoiling against in this case, and justly so. “Freedom of religion” here is simply a ruse. Indiana is in the process of getting its butt collectively slapped by fair-minded Americans. I for one won’t visit Indiana or spend one dime there until their disgusting law is repealed.

 
The Thinker

47 mutineers

I was hardly the only one shocked and more than a little dumfounded when 47 Republican U.S. senators sent an unsolicited letter to the Grand Ayatollah of Iran, Ali Khamenei last week. The letter said that any agreement between the United States, Iran, and all those other pesky countries (including China and Russia) working to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons could easily be abrogated by the Congress, something that is simply not true.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. We have a Congress in full mutiny over this thing called constitutional government because it is proving to be inconvenient. They are in mutiny because they hate the guy leading the executive branch because he has the audacity not to agree with them on everything. Just a week earlier House Speaker John Boehner made good on his unilateral decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress. Hitherto foreign policy, with the exception of treaties has been the purview of the executive because, well, it’s that’s what it says in the constitution. It must be very confusing to foreign leaders. Just who speaks for the United States government? It’s pretty clear in other governments, but not in our government, not anymore.

Only it’s not just the Congress. It’s also the Alabama Supreme Court. It started when its supreme justice Roy Moore told county clerks not to marry gay and lesbian couples, this after a federal court ruled they could marry. Subsequently the entire (Republican) state supreme court backed him up. Alabama is basically telling its court clerks that its decision nullifies the federal court’s decision. This is something close to treason. At the very least it is a conscious effort to ignore the supremacy clause of the U.S. constitution. We fought a three-year civil war to resolve the issue of states’ rights. One can understand the impulse not to want to accept these rulings, but a court is never supposed to do anything that obviously conflicts with the settled and unambiguous law of our land. Alvin Toffler would say this is a classic case of future shock. It’s clear that Republicans and southern states in general aren’t doing very well in dealing with the future that has already arrived and won’t follow constitutional processes to change things they don’t like.

Still, what these 47 mutinous Republican senators did reached a new level of arrogance and stupidity. New Arkansas senator Tom Cotton initiated the letter. I had two thoughts when I considered how this letter got started. First was that Cotton hadn’t bothered to run it by staff first. If he had they would have doubtless provided a sanity check and told him that this was a really bad, potentially career-ending act, not to mention factually wrong. The other alternative is even more mind-boggling: his staff told him it was a bad idea but he proceeded anyhow.

The even crazier part is that 47 out of 54 Republican senators signed it as well. This included their majority leader Mitch McConnell and John McCain, hitherto one of the rational Republicans. This wasn’t rocket science. The letter was wrong about how our constitution works. It suggests that 47 Republicans don’t even grasp the basic workings of our foreign policy and congress’s role in it. You could both see it and hear it in Secretary of State John Kerry’s testimony. It was basically: are you really this stupid? Did you not hear the words about swearing to uphold our constitution when you took your oath of office?

Some of the signers have belatedly suggested that maybe signing it wasn’t a smart move. Editorial boards across the country were virtually unanimous in condemning what these senators did. Some of the signers of course doubled down, particularly those who seem to be angling to run for president in 2016.

None of these senators should be trusted to so much as guard a roll of pennies again. It was a potentially criminal lapse of judgment, so much so that a petition calling for them to be tried for treason has garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures on whitehouse.gov. Their hatred for all things Obama and their obsessive pandering to the worst elements of their own party overruled common sense, decency and apparently clouded over basic knowledge of our federal system and constitution. These erstwhile champions of the constitution clearly didn’t bother to read it before they signed the letter.

This is another Mission Accomplished moment, something none of these 47 senators will be able to live down. For many their states are so red it won’t make much of a difference to their jobs, but they will forever be ridiculed, insulted and scorned for their mutinous act. Like Lady Macbeth, they will never be able to remove this damned bloody spot from their careers. It’s a mark of deep shame they will carry into death, to be ever recorded in major sections of their biography. The many good things many of these senators have done are likely to be overwhelmed by this egregious, mutinous and profoundly stupid act of putting their anger and partisanship ahead of statesmanship.

 
The Thinker

Hillary’s emails: what the critics are missing

The current kerfuffle over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private Blackberry and private email server for her official business while she was Secretary of State is mostly about making a mountain out of a molehill. Nonetheless the molehill makes for a pretty interesting discussion and analysis. I have some thoughts about this coming from my time as a civil servant as well as some technical perspectives from my career in information technology that I haven’t heard in the media. Hence I’m taking some time to blog about it.

There are many dimensions to the issue. You can look at it from either dimension and feel completely justified that your side is right. Let me advocate for both of them and you tell me which is right.

First, I’ll take the critical perspective. Records should be kept of official government business. The Secretary of State does a lot of official business and it impacts national and international policy. Moreover, the email threads of these historical events may provide useful lessons for the future. The Secretary of State is essentially a civil servant. She works for the taxpayers. So her email should be archived, not necessarily for instant critique, but for history and for congressional and criminal inquiries when they are needed.

However, she was not just anyone. She was the Secretary of State. I can think of few positions in the government, including the Director of the CIA, that are more sensitive. If I were trying to have a confidential back channel communication with the Prime Minister of Israel, would I really want him to communicate with me through [email protected], even if the email were highly encrypted? Or using any state.gov email address? Would any leader outside our country want anything less than innocuous content to go through such a system? There is always the telephone, of course, and the Blackberry includes a telephone. However, a telephone is synchronous. It’s a relatively inefficient way to work. It’s much better to reply with thought and nuance when you have the opportunity to do so, i.e. use email.

The reality is that the Secretary of State (and most high level government executives) has multiple channels of communications to do their business. Email is an important tool. Staff communications happens at another level and is also vital. In general, all sorts of lower level communications have likely happened before the Secretary picks up the phone or sends an email. If there are times when a confidential email is the best choice for the Secretary, an off the record email system makes a lot of pragmatic and business sense. It’s hard for me to think of myself as Secretary of State but if I was, it was lawful and I had the money I’d probably have done mostly what Clinton did, except I’d have a separate email for strictly personal use. A private email address though was pragmatic and necessary. We should trust implicitly anyone we pick for Secretary of State. If we didn’t trust her, the Senate should not have confirmed her.

Using the same email account for both personal and public use even though it offers convenience is stupid. Personal systems are likely to be less secure as government systems, although government email systems are hardly perfectly secure. One could make the business case that overall her public emails would have been more secure being hidden on a private server inside the government technical enclave. Ideally she would use a hidden government-managed email server that was patched and highly secured.

However, those who think that she should have done all of her email using a [email protected] email address clearly don’t have much of an understanding of how impractical this is. If this was her only government email address, it would be inundated with thousands of emails every day, even after the spam filter removed the obvious garbage. She would depend on staff to sift through it and flag the ones that she would read. Staff are not perfect though and might potentially not flag the important ones. In addition, there are times when you really don’t want staff reading certain emails but you need to communicate asynchronously. So you need a channel for that. And the open nature of email means anyone can send email to anyone. In short, this approach is not the least bit practical for someone at her position. She needed an email system that only let in those that she needed to let in, and this could not be done through the technology of the time.

What she did was not unlawful at the time, but certainly gave out a bad odor. It feeds into conspiracy theories that the Clintons always attract. It suggests a need for rigorous control and confidentiality; something I argue is not unreasonable for someone in her position. Mostly though I think the problem here is that the technology did not exist that allowed her to do her work pragmatically. It still doesn’t exist. Email is not quite the right medium for what she needed, but it was a tool everyone had. A private email address and mail server was a pragmatic solution to a difficult problem.

It may well be that Hillary Clinton is as paranoid as Republicans believe she is, and that all their theories about her are true. If so she has plenty of company among Republicans. I strongly suspect that she is guilty of being pragmatic and efficient, and using these somewhat unorthodox means allowed her to be the highly productive Secretary of State that most historians agree that she was. And given the unique sensitivity and nature of her work, I think the ends largely justified the means here. I also believe that if there were a technical solution available that would have met her requirements, she would have used it.

 
The Thinker

Future errata on the news

No special topic for today’s post, just some quick thoughts about the news of the day and what I believe the story behind the story will be. With luck my precognition will be proven by subsequent events, and these will be errata indeed:

  • On the invitation by Speaker John Boehner to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress: This isn’t about the supposed threat that Iraq’s nuclear weapon program poses to Israel’s existence. Congress doesn’t need additional convincing on that. This is about Republicans, and House Republicans in particular, having a snit with President Obama because basically they loathe him and can’t figure out any other way to kick him in the balls. They don’t respect him or his administration, even before he came to office. In short, this is institutional passive aggressive behavior. It is also very unwise as it sets a new and dangerous precedence that our country will speak on foreign policy with multiple voices. (Executing foreign policy is constitutionally the responsibility of the Executive branch.) This is also about Speaker Boehner trying to gain some leverage with his mostly out of control Tea Party wing. It helps shows that he is manly and serious in ways that they can appreciate. If I were a Democrat in Congress, I’d boycott attending. However, I don’t expect a critical mass of Democrats will do this, as they proved in the 2014 election that they are quite spineless.
  • On the allegation in David Alexrod’s new book that President Obama hid his support for gay marriage in the 2008 campaign: no duh! It was clear to us Democrats that he was for gay marriage, but he felt it was too dangerous to say so publicly at the time as it would have adversely affected his campaign. What was evolving was not his opinions, but the American people’s opinions. He was waiting for us to catch up. So, yes, he was being disingenuous, but no more than most politicians. In fact, most of the Republicans who claim to be upset about gay marriage really don’t care too much about it either; they just don’t want to upset their base, or really what the think is their base, i.e. the noisy (i.e. politically active) ones.
  • On funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which runs out at the end of February: in the end Republicans will cave, probably sooner rather than later. Even if the House bill gets out of the Senate, which won’t happen, the President will veto it. The egg won’t be on Obama’s face as it plays out, because Americans overwhelmingly support his interim steps for immigration reform. So this is a losing issue for Republicans. Republicans will probably go for a series of 30 day funding mechanisms, until enough of them realize it just makes them look stupid, and then they’ll capitulate.
  • On the Obama Administration’s hope that a reinvigorated Iraqi army — with plenty of American advisors safely out of firing range to act as coaches –will retake Mosul from ISIS: it ain’t going to happen. The Iraqi army is a joke because there is no country called Iraq and because more desertions happen monthly than recruits coming in. What there is is a marginally governable country that should be called Shi’ite Iraq. To the extent that they will retake land it will be in traditionally Shi’ite dominated areas of that former country. What’s really happening is what I predicted in 2006: Iraq is being fractured into a number of religiously orthodox and ethnically pure countries: Shi’ite Iraq, Kurdistan and the Islamic State. It won’t be external forces that kill the Islamic State. It will be resistance from within when residents get sick of the overwhelming terror and (worse) the paucity of first world services like satellite TV. Neighboring countries will try to nudge this to happen sooner rather than later by making living in the IS more undesirable. The IS will either have to adopt into something marginally politically acceptable in the Middle East or it will eventually die a natural death. A state that does not operate like a state, i.e. with some uniformity and ability to provide basic services, is not a real state. I doubt it will be around five years from now regardless of what is done or not done.
  • On the reemergence of diseases like measles because certain parents can’t or won’t get their children immunized: never underestimate the power of shame and conformity. Americans are all for freedom until someone else’s freedom hurts their kids. If just one kid dies in America because someone kid’s parent refused to get their kid immunized, the remaining states will quickly fall in line and require all children to be inoculated against preventable diseases. The only question is where the set point is these days, as most Americans have no living memory of mass diseases like the measles. Smart Republican politicians are already walking back their talking points because disease knows no political boundaries. The parents of a Republican kid who comes down with the measles will be just as pissed-off Democratic parents in this situation, once they get over their own shame. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, particularly when we are certain that immunizations are safe and effective.
  • On the inevitability of Hillary Clinton as our next president: I am not convinced. The more I study her, the more things I find to dislike about her. The more Americans focus on her and the more they study her, the more that have second thoughts as well. If Republicans were smart, they would nominate a mainstream woman to run against her, perhaps Carly Fiorina to help negate the frustration by women that we never had a female president. Fortunately for Democrats, Republicans usually go stupid when picking a nominee. Still, a convincing mainstream Republican like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush or Indiana Governor Mike Pence could win in 2016. That’s what the sensible establishment Republicans are figuring, which is why they are throwing money into PACs for Jeb and trying to make him the likely nominee. If Clinton stumbles, right now the Democrats best bet is former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, because he is known for crossing the aisles and for taking unpopular positions, assuming Webb does not try a third party route. That’s credibility, and it’s what Americans are desperately looking for. I don’t expect though that Democrats will be in the mood to go with a mainstream candidate.
 
The Thinker

What should marriage mean anyhow?

Barring a surprise from the Supreme Court later this year, it is likely that same sex marriage will be legal throughout the entire United States by the end of 2015. This train seems unstoppable. Thirty-five states now permit gay marriage. There are lawsuits by litigants protesting bans in all the remaining states. In the unlikely event that the Supreme Court does allow states to ban gay marriages, it probably won’t allow states to not recognize same sex marriages performed in other states. This would effectively mean that the only extra cost for same sex couples wanting to get married would be to go to a state that does recognize same sex marriage and marry there, presumably a minor inconvenience. Here in Virginia, which still has a constitutional amendment prohibiting same sex marriage that was subsequently voided by decisions by federal courts, I noticed that the state’s tax forms this year includes changes that allow married same sex couples to file as a married couple. This is progress!

Mostly absent from the same sex marriage discussion is what does it mean to be married. Those of us who are married have already figured this out: it means exactly what the two people involved in the marriage want it to mean. If, like former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, you interpret your marriage contract to mean you cannot sit on a sofa with any adult woman other than your wife, go for it. Similarly, if you and your spouse want to have a completely open marriage where either of you can screw whoever you want whenever you want (with presumably the requirement to inform your spouse first) it can be this as well. In fact, a marriage can be anything the two in the marriage agree it will be, and even stuff they don’t agree it will be if it is tacitly permitted. It ends with a legal divorce. Thankfully, there is no requirement for a marriage inspector to pay periodic visits to determine that you are being monogamous or that you actually live together. This is in effect what marriage has always meant, at least here in the United States for the last hundred years or so.

What should the meaning of marriage be? In some respects the question is hypothetical because what it should be and what it actually is for a couple are often two different things. There are two aspects to this question. First, it should mean whatever it means to the couple based on their agreement or expectations going into the marriage. Hopefully, they will have had many long conversations about this before they tie the knot, ideally facilitated through premarital counseling. Both of them should have a common understanding. Ideally, it would be written down somewhere so that either can refer to it, or to renegotiate the terms from time to time. Many couples choose to have prenuptial agreements that give the force of law to certain aspects of their marriage.

The other aspect is what should the meaning of marriage be to civil society at large? As same sex marriage opponents like to point out, traditionally marriage existed to provide a legal framework for children to be raised. Before looking at what is should be, let’s look at what marriage is for society.

At least here in the United States, marriage offers no particular tax advantages. In fact most married couple discover they pay more taxes as a married couple than they did as two single people combined. You can claim your children as dependents, providing you actually pay for their care. However, you can take this claim outside the framework of marriage if you pay support for pretty much anyone who is your legal dependent. There are legal privileges to being married, and they vary from state to state. For example, if you are married you are generally assumed to be the first “next of kin”. There are also contractual obligations that come with marriage. In most cases you are libel for debts incurred by your spouse.

There are certain financial advantages to marriage as well. Health insurance may be cheaper if procured for a couple instead of individually. The biggest financial advantage of marriage probably comes from sharing housing. It’s much cheaper for two people to inhabit one household than for two people to maintain separate households. Two unmarried people can of course “shack up” and achieve similar savings, if the zoning allows this, but with less likelihood that these savings could be sustained over many years.

But what should marriage mean to society at large? As with the people in a marriage, it will mean whatever government thinks it should mean. Of course, society’s expectations for marriage often vary widely from the actual consequences of marriage. This is borne out in divorce and domestic abuse statistics. Society should expect that married couples will have nurturing and healthy relationships, and because of this it will make society in general better. Society should expect that due to marriage, children of married couples should be happier and healthier than children raised in a single parent household. Crime rates for these households should be lower. Of course, at best the empirical data to support all this is mixed, although there is good evidence that crime rates are lower in general in communities where people own their homes compared to rental communities. In general though the expectation is that marriage should promote societal harmony and prosperity. This does imply though that society would be less of these if no one ever married. I doubt this argument could be empirically validated either. A lot of people get married thinking they will be happier. When they try it they often find out they were happier as singles. In truth, living with the same person for many years is more often harder than easy, at least compared with who you were before the marriage.

For me, I think that marriage should mean that two people are happier living together than apart; otherwise there is no point to being married. For society, if it actually promotes societal harmony then marriage should enjoy legal protections. The evidence here is mixed, to say the least. I don’t believe that the state should give special privileges to married couples, such as tax breaks, because it discriminates against single people. However, I see nothing wrong with society sanctioning marriage because it allows two people to have greater happiness. We formed the United States in part to allow each person to pursue happiness. If civil marriage can facilitate a sense of intimacy and closeness between two people, it’s a worthy thing for government to sanction.

Beyond that marriage should mean very little to society at large, the same way that my neighbor five doors down’s marriage means little to me personally. In short, I think marriage should mean a great deal to those who are married. For the most part though marriage should mean a lot less to society at large than we ascribe to it. Those obsessing about it should just take a chill pill.

 
The Thinker

The real price of discrimination

Today’s Martin Luther King holiday actually has me reflecting on Martin Luther King. That’s in part due to the annual news stories about the holiday and snippets of his most famous speeches that always show up on social media on the holiday. Most churches reinforce his legacy, as mine did yesterday. The bloody march he led to Montgomery, Alabama, which began at a bridge in Selma, Alabama (it happened fifty years ago this March) killed some and injured many more innocent people who were simply demanding that blacks be treated equally.

One of those killed was a Unitarian Universalist minister, and that’s important to me because I am a UU. The Reverend Jim Reeb was one of many UU ministers who hustled down to Selma to join the march to Montgomery. White men with clubs attacked him and others on the march. He likely died because he could not get to a hospital in time, as he could only be transported in a black ambulance (which also got a flat tire en route), even though he was white. Also among the UU ministers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma was the UU minister Reverend John Wells, then of the Mount Vernon, Virginia UU church. He married my wife and I thirty years ago. He spoke proudly of his participation in the march when we met with him for some pre-nuptial planning.

2014 sobered many of us up who were beginning to believe we lived in a post racial society. After all we had elected a black president not once, but twice. Things are certainly better racially than they were fifty years ago in Selma. Yet if we have come a long way to end racism, it’s now undeniable that we still have a long way yet to go. Quite obviously though it’s not just racism that divides us. Martin Luther King spent most of his ministry trying to bring about racial justice, but he was certainly aware that injustice had many aspects. Racial injustice was easy to see and impossible to ignore. Dr. King also helped open the door to expose other forms of discrimination. While I feel aghast at how much work remains to create a racially just society, I can also feel satisfaction in how far we’ve come in other areas. Later this year it is likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will make same sex marriage a right. Fifty years ago homosexuals were barely acknowledged. This is tremendous progress.

There may be a reason that homophobia receded so quickly. Whereas skin color is impossible to ignore, someone’s sexual preference is impossible to know unless it is disclosed. It might be inferred but it’s hard to say with certainty. Whereas many whites may know few blacks intimately, most of us have a gay sibling, cousin, aunt or uncle in the family (and maybe several). This has the effect of forcing us to confront our prejudices. It is easier for us to identify with others when they are close to us. I think this principally explains the stunning advancement of marriage and parental rights for gays and lesbians. As gays and lesbians gain rights and broad acceptance in society, it is becoming easier for other queers to gain acceptance too. The brave new oppressed social group these days seems to be the transgender community. It’s not hard to predict that this community, which already has rights in some localities, will gain full equality relatively quickly as well as specific legal protections. Many of us have now encountered an openly transgender person in the workplace and they no longer seem scary. I have known three.

We don’t think of whites looking down on fellow whites, but in truth whites do this all the time. The whites that populate most of Appalachia, particularly the lower class whites, are targets of discrimination and ridicule too. Terms like “white trash” should be just as offensive as “nigger”. This is an area I need to work on, as I have lampooned Walmart shoppers in a few posts, although it’s not just whites that shop at Walmart. Sites like peopleofwalmart.com and whitetrashrepairs.com cater to those who like to look down at what we perceive as the faults or eccentricities of lower class whites, but really just those with lower incomes in general or that strike us as intensely peculiar.

The unspoken animus is that while we can afford our lifestyle, they cannot and therefore there must be something wrong with them. In truth, what is “wrong” with them is mostly our refusal to help them raise their economic status. These people are actually much stronger and resilient than those of us further up the economic ladder, they just don’t have the resources to ascend the ladder. If the rest of us were forced to live on a quarter of our income, we would not fare nearly as well, although we like to think we could. More about this is a subsequent post, perhaps.

There are many other ways we overtly or covertly discriminate, but they generally have “ism” in common. Most upper class whites are fine having blacks as neighbors providing they adopt our values, maintain their houses real well and don’t raise any problem children. Racism and ethnic discrimination usually amounts to classism. We gain perceived social status roughly based on our income, which we then parade in the quality of our neighborhoods, the skinniness of our trophy wives and the costs and brands of our cars.

The Irish are as white as any group of Caucasians from Europe, but they were ruthlessly discriminated and ghetto-ized when they came to America, as were many other white ethnic groups. They were not so much melted down as grudgingly accepted into the culture if they could find a golden ticket to the middle class. After a while someone’s ethnicity did not matter, but class still did. Sexism is going through something similar. One of our most glaring “isms” doesn’t quite have a word yet. I call it attractiveness discrimination. There is no question that attractive people in general have privileges and opportunities disproportionate to those perceived to be less attractive. Those judged to be plain or ugly are frequently victims of discrimination: in employment, in insurability, in wages and in many other ways. We project onto attractive people qualities they may or may not have, and sometimes discriminate against attractive people as well by assuming they can do things they cannot simply because they are attractive.

I don’t know how we fully rid ourselves of these biases and discriminatory tendencies. It is an ugly side to our species. Dogs to not appear to be classists by nature, so in that sense they are superior to us. What matters is only how they are treated, and sometimes not even that. What is hard to measure is the true cost of all this multilevel, multi-variable discrimination. Whatever the true cost is, it must be catastrophically high. When I read stories like Republicans in Congress trying to cut food stamp benefits or trying to take Medicaid away from the working poor, at best I wince and at worst I cry. To make people whose lives are already so miserable even more miserable seems like a crime worthy of being sent to hell’s lowest level. Our world is so miserable and the misery seems likely to only increase. Yet the classism within us makes the situation exponentially worse. It denies so many of us the ability to achieve their potential. Imagine what our country could be if everyone could live up to their potential. Imagine how enriched society would be.

This is the true cost of discrimination. Those of us who discriminate may do so overtly or covertly, but when we do it we stick the dagger not only into those we discriminate against, but also into ourselves. We empty ourselves of the values we need to have a loving and caring community.

On this Martin Luther King holiday, this is part of his message that so often overlooked that I am pondering. It leaves me feeling melancholy and fighting despair.

 
The Thinker

Free speech has limits

If freedom is not free then last week’s terrorist incidents in Paris by Islamic terrorists proves that free speech is not free either.

In the unlikely event you were away from the news the last week, sixteen people including four French Jews and one Muslim policeman were murdered by Islamic terrorists in two incidents in and around Paris. The resulting shock and outcry has predictably led to more security in France. It also caused an impressive rally yesterday that brought about one and a half million protesters into the streets of Paris. The protesters shouted that they would not be intimidated by these incidents.

The primary attack occurred at the offices of the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. Three terrorists with automatic weapons quickly killed twelve people and wounded many others. Many of those killed were cartoonists that drew what most reasonable people would call patently offensive cartoons, far beyond what is depicted even in edgy publications here in the United States. In fact their offices had been attacked years ago for publishing cartoons that depicted the prophet Mohammad. Four Jews were also killed in a subsequent attack at a kosher market near Paris on Friday.

Free speech is only possible in a culture where its underlying population is civilized enough to not take violent action when the hear or read what they perceive as grossly offensive and/or blasphemous speech. No such society actually exists, which means that incidents like these are bound to happen from time to time. They are more likely when terrorist organizations and states proliferate and their ideology gains traction within free societies. French citizens were of course outraged but no one was particularly surprised. The only real question was why something of this magnitude had not happened earlier in France.

Perhaps you have heard of this saying: if you are playing with fire, expect to get burned now and then. Charlie Hebdo had already played with fire and had gotten burned and it continued to pay with fire. It indiscriminately and most would say offensively satirizes people and groups from all sides of the political spectrum. Creating outrage was how it makes money. It is a profitable niche. It was also what they felt called to do.

Unsurprisingly I don’t get the violent reaction by Islamic extremists to what they perceive as the blasphemy of making cartoon depictions of Mohammed. In reality, even free speech is not entirely free of consequence, certainly not here the United States and in particular not France, which has very un-free and discriminatory laws that target Muslims in particular, such as requiring Muslim women not to wear their head scarves. The cartoon of a Muslim (it was not clear to me that it was supposed to be Mohammad) that seems to have triggered this attack was offensive to me (and I am not a Muslim) because it belittled and stereotyped a religion by depicting it as wildly different than what it actually is, in general. It would be like a cartoon that portrayed the pope as a child molester or the president as a cannibal. At best it was in very bad taste. It really spoke much more about the Charlie Hebdo than it did about Islam. While Charlie Hebdo tends to be nondiscriminatory in its satire, most of its work tends to be stuff that the vast majority of people at least here in the United States would consider beyond the pale. If it had an equivalent in the United States, most people would not want it on their coffee table. They would not want to be known as someone who read Charlie Hebdo. For the same reason most people would not leave out books of hardcore pornography on their coffee table either.

So freedom of the press is not in practice entirely free of consequence. Those who dare to go too far outside the mainstream are likely to find they will pay a price from time to time. And no government can guarantee that this freedom can be expressed without injury. Risk and freedom go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. Unsurprisingly most publishers are somewhere in the middle, and seem to understand that it’s okay to express their opinions but that there are practical limits that if you transgress them then you could pay a price. So we mostly stick to moderation. The New York Times, for example, decided not to publish the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoon. While it had the right to do so, it made a sensible decision that the cost of this right was not worth the possible results of doing so. In some sense then the terrorists won, but the New York Times really made a judgment that was as sound from a business perspective as it was sound as an exercise in common sense. People with common sense will exercise reasonable self-censorship for the sake of overall societal harmony.

Of course there are places, like the Islamic State or areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban where freedom does not exist. Those who live there live in tyrannies. And this is evil because it is also not our nature to spend our life wholly muzzled from honest expression. It’s clear to me that those who perpetrated these crimes would have all of us live in such a state, where only behavior they believe to be sanctioned by God and the Quran would be allowed.

They are hardly alone. Here in the United States there are Dominionists that would turn us into a Christian state. If they had their way the United States would look a lot like the Islamic State, just with a cross as its symbol. There would be a state religion, divorce would not be allowed and homosexuality would be criminalized again. Many of us are pulled toward ideologies that will brook no dissent, perhaps for the feeling of comfort that such certainty brings. For these people, pluralism itself is an enemy and feels threatening. They find comfort and safety only when all people, either willingly or by force, do as they believe is required. Occasionally, as in Paris last week, an irresistible force will meet an immovable object. When this happens it proves to me that absolute free speech is an illusion. In reality, self-censorship is a practical way we maintain a broad general freedom of speech. We should not chase the illusion that all speech should be tolerated or permitted without consequence. It never has been and never will be.

Instead, we should work to create and maintain societies that promote general tolerance and moderation. Those that step too far out of this natural comfort zone don’t necessarily deserve what they get, but reality is likely to provide it anyhow, as happened in Paris last week. There is a natural Darwinism at work among these people. Transgressions outside this natural zone of reasonable taste should be rare, if they occur at all.

What goes around comes around, and unfortunately it came to Charlie Hebdo and Paris last week. My comments certainly are not meant to justify the terrorism that occurred but simply to point out that it can be anticipated in cases like these because the speech is so extreme.

We had best learn to live with it because we cannot really change it.

 
The Thinker

Liz Warren for president?

Moveon.org members are convinced: Massachusetts’s senator Elizabeth Warren is their overwhelming pick for president in 2016. They want to convince her to run although so far Senator Warren is proving tone deaf. When prompted by NPR recently she didn’t say she would never run, but kept reiterating she is not running for president. Her groupies may take this as an encouraging sign. I won’t be reading too much into it.

Senator Warren is one of a number of boutique candidates or candidate possibilities of interest to various groups. Often the most interested ones are the potential candidates themselves. They are already out there preening and posturing, and that includes soon to be ex-governor Rick Perry of Texas who is hoping his new ugly black framed glasses will look presidential this time around. It also includes “Mr. Sweater-vest” and former anemic Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, but also quite clearly Jeb Bush and so many other Republicans in waiting that it’s hard to list them all.

On the Democratic side until recently there has been no one willing to challenge Hillary Clinton, should she announce her candidacy for president. Despite her public hedging, there is little suspense about if she will run, just when she will announce it. My former senator Jim Webb apparently wants to run, or is at least working on an exploratory committee, which is the first step. There is also the soon to be former governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley that is thinking maybe he should run, particularly if Hillary looks vulnerable or if by running he might be on her ticket. And then there are the boutique candidates who really have no chance but want to promote their issues. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who is actually a socialist and caucuses with the Democrats, is considering running to call attention to the problems of the middle class. Warren’s supporters, and there are many of them, want her to do the same thing.

Watching Warren speak is interesting. She is a compelling speaker. Unlike most politicians, she speaks from her heart. She is genuine and weirdly enough she actually cares passionately about her issues, which is mostly the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich and the oversized influence of Wall Street on our lives. Most recently she made the news criticizing the recent “cromnibus” bill that funds most of the federal government through fiscal year 2015, in particular the provisions slipped in to ease the ability of banks to invest in derivatives. Her mixture of authenticity, scholarship and passion is definitely unique at the moment, and it doesn’t hurt that she is a woman as well.

But Liz Warren for president? She seems to be smart enough to realize her own limitations, which speaks well of her. She is working hard to restore America’s middle class, but she is going up against institutional forces that are likely to defeat her. Still she keeps at it, and it is heartening to see her not lose hope in what seems like a lost cause. She makes most progressive Democrats feel downright tingly. She connects with us in a way that we haven’t felt since Barack Obama entered the national stage.

Liz Warren has many wonderful attributes, but she is no Barack Obama, at least not yet. Liz is focused like a laser on addressing the problems of the middle class. The problem with focus though is you tune out all the other stuff about governing. It’s not fair to say she is disinterested about things like defense spending, terrorism or race relations. She probably knows quite a bit about these things. She just chooses not to open her mouth much on them. That was not the case with Barack Obama. While he may not have had much experience in these areas, he certainly understood them and gave thoughtful, analytical and nuanced positions on all these issues. He looked and sounded like presidential material because someone who is going to be president should see the big picture. Rarely has our national chessboard been so complex. We need someone who has the political skills to handle the multifaceted, 24/7/365 aspects of being president.

Liz Warren simply hasn’t demonstrated this. Progressive Democrats’ hearts may skip a beat when she opens her mouth but that’s not a particularly good reason to nominate anyone for president. She is passionate and persistent, but was she to be president she would face most of the same issues President Obama has struggled with. She would likely be dealing with a Congress controlled by Republicans. To govern she would have to make deals, assuming anyone on the other side wanted to make a deal. Lately Republicans have been all about obstinacy. It’s all well and good to stand up for your values, but being president requires compromise. It means selectively sticking up for certain things and giving up on others. She makes noise in the Senate but so far she hasn’t done much to effectively cross the aisle, not that it’s an easy thing to do when your opposition basically won’t concede anything.

Liz is guilty of being popular, but being popular does not mean that someone is presidential material. I like Liz a lot. I expect in 2015 when my wife and I move to Massachusetts that she will be my senator, and I will be glad to call her my senator. But she is not yet presidential material. It seems that she understands this too, which speaks highly of her. So I don’t expect her to be a candidate, no matter what the members of MoveOn.org want, because she has too much common sense.

I’d rather see her move the needle where she can and continue to be a top fundraiser for Democratic candidates. I want her to be our chief cheerleader, because we will need plenty of enthusiasm from the rank and file to win in 2016 and maybe take back the Senate. Absent evidence I don’t yet see in her, I hope she won’t run for president. If you are one of her supporters, I hope you will see that she can be far more effective for our side right where she is.

 
The Thinker

RIP Marion Barry, a man truly of the people

I was a bit surprised to read that former “Mayor for Life” Marion Barry passed away early this morning. Barry, the long-term mayor of the District of Columbia, certainly made his mark on the nation’s capital. In the eyes of many, the mark was not a good one. I confess that I, one of the many people outside the D.C. line, enjoyed lampooning the man. Mostly we whites and moneyed class saw Marion Barry as an embarrassment. It wasn’t just Republicans that felt this way. It included Democrats, and pretty much any non-black Democrat living in or around the district. We would shake our heads at his missteps and travails. In our minds he was not just an embarrassment, but had committed the unforgivable sin of not thinking and behaving like we assumed he should behave. He wasn’t white enough for us. Well, duh! Why should he have been?

His passing though triggers feelings of wistfulness in me. I had hardly arrived in the area in 1978 when he was elected as mayor. He took his first term of office in January 1979, only the second mayor in D.C.’s short history of “home rule”. I put this is quotes because as anyone who lives around here know, D.C. mayors and its city council are always on a short leash. Congress lets D.C. rule itself until the moment it decides it doesn’t like the decision of the district’s democratically elected council members, and then it overrides it. The unspoken rationalization: “We got to keep those niggers in line.”

The district is still Chocolate City, but less so than it used to be. Washington is becoming hipper, trendier and more multicultural. Many dicey neighborhoods have been gentrified since 1979, bringing in more affluent whites and Asians while moving out the poor. When blacks move into neighborhoods, people scream about property values, but when whites do it, it’s somehow okay. Blacks moved principally south into Anacostia and east into Northeast Washington.

Barry was one of many ineffectual mayors who tried to improve the lots of his poorest constituents. The difference with Barry was he was not opposed to a little socialism. He saw it as the business of government to step in where no one else would. Aside from more parks and a convention center (which was torn down a couple of decades later for a fancier convention center), Barry also invested in D.C.’s poor black youth. The city provided summer jobs for black teens, a program that got widely noticed and made Barry hugely popular as a mayor. Barry first served a twelve-year stint as mayor, over three terms, ending in 1991. It was during this time that he because known as “mayor for life” because no one could beat him. This was also during the 1980s when the District was quite a mess. Murder and violence were rampant, not to mention a huge drug epidemic. Barry might have been mayor for life had he not been caught snorting cocaine in a carefully set up drug bust. Going to prison disqualified him from office.

Those of us outside the District’s boundaries jeered when the drug bust was made public. We knew, we knew Barry was a druggie and a philanderer, and this confirmed it. But the people of the District were largely forgiving. This was because Barry was truly one of them and a lot of them were using drugs and philandering as well. He arrived in the district in 1965 to set up offices for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a positive black power movement at the time. During the 1968 riots in the city, Barry helped coordinate the food distribution to blacks whose houses were destroyed in the rioting. Barry actually had some impressive community accomplishment prior to becoming mayor. These included organizing a bus strike and helping to increase home rule in the district. Barry was seen as a fighter for the poor and downtrodden, but in particular for the District’s blacks. He quickly was seen as one of them. D.C. voters shrugged off his conviction and jail time, and audaciously elected him as mayor again in 1995. After that one term, Barry sort of retired, and then got bored because he wasn’t doing what he knew best: practicing politics. He eventually found himself satisfied with a city council seat again representing Ward 8 (mostly Anacostia) since 2005.

Barry continued to make news, albeit with lots of snickering from those who didn’t like him, and we were voluminous. His marriage to Effi Slaughter fell apart, but after his 1993 divorce he quickly remarried Cora Masters.

But Barry cared about the District and its poor, and in that he was authentic, and his constituents sensed this. As an administrator he was so-so at best, but at least he tried. In many ways, that distinguished him. All mayors of course try to make significant changes for the better, but at least in the District they are all bound to fail, at least to some degree, simply because the city’s poverty and demographics are too great a hurdle to overcome regardless of who is in charge. At the federal level, both parties distanced themselves from him and thought he was crazy.

I now feel a bit guilty about being one of those snickering at Barry over the years. Barry was both slimy and authentic. He cared passionately about poor blacks in the city in particular and did his best to make their lives better. Unfortunately while doing so this included some minor drug use and philandering. To me, his chief virtue was that he was unfailingly entertaining. He put on a good show and helped keep the local papers full of interesting headlines. In retrospect his minuses were minor. I appreciated his general authenticity, his ability truly representing the least among us by being one of them, his sly sense of humor and for caring when most of us shook our heads and gave up on D.C.’s poor.

Within months I will be leaving the Washington D.C. region. I came in with Barry and in some sense I am leaving with Barry. He’s been a constant presence my whole time here. I’m going to miss this authentic but flawed man. In truth, he was no more flawed than any of us. It was his position and his mouth that magnified his flaws. But at least he gave a damn and cared about issues that most of us were happy to just pay lip service too.

He was a memorable character that even his detractors are going to miss.

 

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