Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Look elsewhere

Over the last year, my blogging energies have been increasingly consumed by my work for Philadelphia Magazine. If you're looking for my thoughts on politics, that's probably the place to go. Thanks to those of you who have followed me here. I may return someday, who knows?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Olympics are meaningless

Interesting story in NYT today about how an American who won silver at the 2004 Athens games may now take the gold. Why? Retroactive drug testing:
Doping protocols allow for officials to store samples for eight years and retest them for substances they may not have been able to detect at the time the sample was taken. When Bilonog’s sample was analyzed in 2004 at the Olympics, the results were negative, doping officials said. Eight years later, with new tests at their disposal, officials decided to re-examine about 100 samples from the Athens Games, focusing on certain sports and medalists.
I'm kind of at the point that I don't care about athletes doping—I suspect that it's so widespread that it's no longer a competitive advantage, but rather a leveling of a dope-saturated playing field. I don't think that makes the competition that much less interesting: The drugs can't make the human body do more than it's capable of, ultimately.

The testing protocol might actually do more damage to the Olympics. What this means is that every competition you watch, the results are only provisional—and will remain so for up to a decade. The agony of defeat? The thrill of victory? Well, sure, as long as an asterisk is placed on each gold medal, a disclaimer read before every playing of the national anthem, noting that the results won't be official and final for another eight years. That sure seems to diminish the moment of competition.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Tabor College, my alma mater, ends up in Sports Illustrated for all the wrong reasons

Well, I'd love to hear from some of my Tabor friends about this, but the story SI describes doesn't seem terribly different from what things were like when I was a student at Tabor 20 years ago, at least in my mind.

I even did a little research into WHY Tabor had a football team when I was there, digging through old stacks of the student newspaper. If memory serves, the team didn't exist until 1969. It started (and an existing soccer team shut down) more or less in order to stay in the KCAC—the worry being that the college wouldn't survive unless it maintained its membership in the athletic conference.

The football team seemed to exist in a different universe than the rest of Tabor, which was no lip-service denominational college: It really did (and does) take seriously the mission of Christ-centered learning. The student body was pretty white and devout. The football team …much, much less so. Every year or so, there'd be one or two players who really participated in church-related events on campus in a major way, and they drew a lot of attention, but often they were gone the next year, just like most of the rest of the team.

So the team didn't seem to square, even then, with either Tabor's spiritual or educational missions. I recall, in fact, my senior year of college putting the question directly to David Brandt, then Tabor's brand-new president. Why did Tabor persist in keeping a program that seemed to fit the campus so badly?

I don't recall his answer, in fairness: I do recall he answered it with a kind of smiling frustration reserved for the "you don't get how the world works, son," and I guess I did and didn't.

I'm disappointed that the current president, Jules Glanzer, elected to try to avoid attention by declining to speak about this with SI's reporter. In fairness: I'm no longer an ideal Tabor alum myself, being an agnostic liberal. And the story of who benefits and who loses from the existence of the football team at Tabor is complicated by hundreds of individual stories.

But I also suspect that the conflict between how Tabor presents itself, how it thinks of itself, and the different reality lived by much of the football team—well, public embarrassment of some sort was going to come at some point. I'm sorry that it took the death of a young man, a father, to heighten those contradictions. I hope, however, that Tabor will wrestle with the questions posed in this story with honesty, integrity, and fidelity to the faith it proclaims in the world.

Update: Final thought: It was clear 20 years ago that Tabor might not live without football, but would live in a compromised state *with* football. It seems like little has changed. I'm more clear-eyed than I was when I was a self-righteous 20-year-old about the need for and nature of compromise, but I still wonder if it's all ultimately to the good.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Lying liars in the Philadelphia Daily News: Obama and Israel

I understand that a newspaper applies somewhat looser standards in its letters-to-the-editor section than it usually does its own reported news and opinion columns, yet it's a source of unending irritation to me that the Philadelphia Daily News often lets blatant misrepresentations of fact reach its readers uncontradicted.

I'm not against the Daily News printing opinions I dislike, understand. But I hate actual lies and untruths. And the latest emerges today from Pat Dougherty:

Benghazi coverup?
When will you do your duty to the American people and cover this tragedy honestly? You have covered for this corrupt administration for far too long. Mr. Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the rest of this administration has the blood of those four dead Americans on their hands. You are complicit and their blood stains you also. Would you be so uninterested if this was a Republican administration? No, your headlines would scream of it daily! You are in bed with a man that, in his own words, said he would stand with Muslims against Israel. Nice. A leader of America standing with those that say they want us dead.

The lie? That Obama, "in his own words, said he would stand with Muslims against Israel." I don't have to even look this up. Know how I know this is a lie? Because this is such an Israel-supporting nation that any major political figure who ever said such a thing would see his electoral career finished. Instantly. Especially if that politician were running for president.

But, hey, let's give Mr. Dougherty the benefit of the doubt that he didn't make up this quote out of whole cloth. Where did it come from? Well, it's a popular trope among the darker corners of the conservative blogosphere that Obama once said this: 'I will stand with the Muslims should the political winds shift in an ugly direction." Which, you'll note, is not the same thing as saying he'd stand with the Muslims against Israel. But heck, lets look at the context even of that. Turns out it emerges devoid of its context from his book, "The Audacity of Hope." has it covered:

So, the then-future president said he would stand with Muslims to preserve their civil rights! Great! He didn't say he'd "stand against Israel?" Even better!

Maybe the Daily News expects its other readers to know that Mr. Dougherty is purveying mistruths and lies. But it's frustrating to see such fakery perpetuated in the newspaper, no matter which page it's on.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Rich Lowry: 'Racialized politics'

You almost get the feeling that Rich Lowry deliberately misunderstands:
"One of the most extraordinary things about the post-election discussion is how Democrats and the media are hailing a more or less explicitly racialized politics in this country."
Only if by "racialized" you mean "inclusive of more than one race." But I don't think that's what Lowry intends.

Here's the breakdown: Roughly 72 percent of Americans are white. 12 percent are black, 5 percent are Asian, and 16 percent are Hispanic or Latino (which gets included in the "white" count, which is why this adds up to more than 100 percent.)

Romney voters were 88 percent white. "We find that 2 percent of Romney's voters were black, 6 percent were Latino, 2 percent were Asian, and 2 percent had some other ethnic classification."

And Obama? "Obama's support was 56 percent white, 24 percent black, 14 percent Latino, 4 percent Asian, and 2 percent other."

Neither set of voters is entirely demographically representative of the United States population. But one set is a lot closer. And that set happened to be on the winning side.

This isn't rocket science: Republicans have spent decades appealing to white voters and deliberately repelling minority voters, usually screaming in anguish when anybody points that out. That's racialized politics. My advice to Republicans, if they want to be true to themselves but also win elections: You don't need to pander to minority voters. Just stop being jerks to them. And stop kidding yourselves that pandering to white voters is "colorblind." It's not.

Republicans should stop alienating minorities

That's my suggestion in this week's Scripps Howard column, taking stock of the election results:
Here's a bit of friendly advice to my friends in the Republican Party: It's time to stop being so afraid of minorities. It's the only way you'll survive future elections. 
Save me the talk about how you're not afraid of minorities. Your party spent 40 years pursuing the "Southern Strategy" of demonizing blacks to curry favor with Southern whites. Your party held up Arizona's anti-immigration law -- along with its racial-profiling practices -- as a model for the nation. Your party just this year passed voter ID laws that were a clear attempt to suppress minority votes. And your party tried to win the 2012 election by digging up an old videotape of Obama just weeks before this election, suggesting (falsely) that it was proof of his reverse racism. 
Republicans have sent a clear, unmistakable message. It has been just as unmistakably received. The result? Romney earned the support of a whole lot of white male voters -- and not a whole lot of anyone else. 
Women? African-Americans? Latinos? They ended up mostly voting for Obama. And Obama won re-election, you may have noticed. 
It doesn't have to be this way. There's nothing inherently "white" about a desire for limited government, or lower taxes or even "family values." If the GOP were seen as a welcoming place for a wider cross section of America, it would earn the support of a wider cross section of America. White guys can't deliver an election on their own anymore. 
Really, all you have to do is rethink your "severely conservative" rhetoric on immigration policy, and you might find a quick change in your electoral fortunes. Pass the DREAM Act. Start printing up visas for guest workers. These are measures that had GOP support in the past.
Support them again -- and change nothing else -- and you might win again.
I would love for this to happen, actually, would love for us to untangle our politics from tribalistic identity battles and instead really just be competitions between competing ideas. That's perhaps overly idealistic of me, but I would love it. And I don't think it requires much of a philosophical change on the part of conservatives--just (ahem) a bit of an attitude adjustment.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

On adulthood, Iran, and war

A reader writes to me:
  I don't know why it is that grown adults like yourself "cringe" everytime the subject of war comes up.  It reminds me of the rebellious reaction a child displays when asked to wash his hands or take a bath.  It's as is we exist in a vacume where no evil exists and some magic force will automactically protect us from doom.  This attitude is what lead the U.S. and the rest of the globe to downplay the role of Adolph Hitler until he secceeded in murdering 11 million souls. 
   But if we follow this path in regards to Iran we will face an outcome even more destructive than the fallout from WWII.  And "fallout" is the operative term.  If Ahmed Adinojhad reaches the ability to produce nuclear warheads he will either use them to wipe out Israel or as a threat to our efforts for peace.  And if you don't think he will do these things remember that the same thing was said about Hitler. 
   In short Mr. Mathis I suggest it's time for you and your liberal followers to grow up and start acting like adults. When it comes to war we simply can't avoid it solely on the basis that we don't like it.  That is unless you feel your opinion is more important than the rest of us living.  
I respond (with slight edits):
If reluctance to war is a sin, though, let me suggest that over eagerness to attack and invade and bomb is another. Americans not so long ago were told that the invasion of Iraq was necessary to prevent the occurrence of a "mushroom cloud" demonstrate Saddam Hussein's evil powers. Oops. Turns out that many people died--mostly because of the violence that we unleashed.   
If it is "adult" to face up to the sad necessities of war and childish to want to avoid them, let me submit that it's also more than a little puerile to unleash such forces with little apparent regard for the tens of thousands of innocents who die as a result. Iraqi civilians suffered because of a mirage; you now propose that Iranian civilians be maimed and die because this time it's REALLY true that a Middle Eastern regime will commit genocide and suicide in one fell swoop. Me? I'd rather be cautious. I think it might save more lives on both sides.  
I once was a pacifist. No longer, though I remain a skeptic of war and its benefits. Some wars are probably necessary. But they are few in number, and certainly fewer than you seek to justify.  

Friday, November 2, 2012

We don't owe jobs to fallen police, firefighters

Today at The Philly Post, I urge voters to reject Ballot Question 3 in next Tuesday's election. It guarantees jobs to grandkids. Really:
Again, there’s no doubt we owe much to fallen officers and their families. No one doubts that. The fact that Philadelphia voters approved a similar measure in 2006, giving preference to the sons and daughters of police and firefighters killed on duty, makes sense. Those kids were directly affected by the loss of a parent. After that, though, the question is less clear—if we’re going to give grandkids a leg up in city hiring practices, why not great-grandkids, too? How far down the genetic line can we go? Do we ever get to stop providing full-time employment to the descendants of the fallen? If we can never fully repay the debt, does that mean we have to pay it forever?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Barack Obama for president

My final endorsement, at Scripps Howard News Service:

Four years ago, I was an enthusiastic Obama voter. Come Tuesday, I'll be a chastened Obama voter -- but an Obama voter nonetheless. 
Civil liberties-minded liberals have reason to be disappointed in this president. He has built up the imperial presidency bequeathed him by George W. Bush, adding some new wrinkles of his own. Americans do not leave an electronic footprint that is not collected, in some fashion, by the federal government. Obama has given himself the power to assassinate citizens suspected of terrorism. It's uncertain whether we're more secure; it is likely we're less free. 
So why vote for Obama? Because Romney would be worse. 
Romney, with his memorable talk of "double Gitmo," would probably continue fortifying the security leviathan Bush and Obama have built since 9/11. 
Along the way, it seems more likely that a President Romney would get us in a shooting war with Iran. 
It seems more likely that a President Romney would appoint Supreme Court justices who would undermine the rights and freedoms of women to control their own reproductive health, or who would turn a cold shoulder to the rights and freedoms of gay and lesbian Americans to make their own families. 
It seems more likely that a President Romney -- a man so vocal in private about his disdain for the poorest 47 percent of the population -- would undermine and dismantle safety net programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in the name of reducing the deficit, all while cutting taxes for his rich friends. 
And despite a week that saw a massive hurricane hit the East Coast, it seems more likely that a President Romney would be less than dedicated to preserving and strengthening federal agencies that assist states and cities in recovering from such disasters. 
President Obama is imperfect. President Romney might be a disaster. 
It's an easy choice to make.
Ben gives an anti-Obama endorsement of Romney. You'll have to click the link to read his take.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

One more thought about Mitt's binders

Let me offer a quick caveat that Mitt Romney's story about having "binders full of women" to fill out his cabinet might actually be hogwash. And if folks want to attack Romney for telling a tall tale, be my guest. I get it.

But I think there's another criticism of Romney and his binders that's not quite right. And it's this: "He should already have known qualified women to fill out his cabinet."

And yes, he should've. But he didn't. So what should've happened then? Should he have ignored the binders completely and filled out his administration with men entirely because he hadn't previously cultivated those relationships?

I don't think so.

The reason liberals like me favor cultivating diversity, and even in using forms affirmative action to get there, is not because we believe in replacing merit with diversity, but because we believe that merit isn't limited to white guys—that it can and should be cultivated throughout the spectrum of humanity. One of the ways such merit (or lack thereof) has been traditionally cultivated has been through "the old boys network." Men knew other men, socialized with them, and brought them along when they got better jobs. It was like Twitter, only in person and generally larded up with privilege.

Romney came up through a sector of the economy that was particularly enmeshed in the "old boys network" way of doing things. And when he was governor, it appears he attempted to do something differently.

Now: Romney says he sought the binders full of women. Other participants say the binders were pushed to him, in an effort to diversify his administration. In either telling, the grip of the "old boys network" was loosened—maybe only slightly, and with real room for improvement, but loosened nonetheless. That's a good thing! Good enough? No.

I'm not going to argue that Romney is a feminist hero, or that he's the candidate that folks concerned with women's issues will want to support. He's not. But part of cultivating diversity—and merit—is breaking the grip of the old boys network. Sometimes, for the Mitt Romneys of the world, that effort will start with a binder instead of a lifetime of active cultivation. That's less satisfying, perhaps, and less pleasing to our sensibilities, but it lays important groundwork—groundwork that will make such binders less needed for future generations of women workers.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A quick note about tribalism, politics, and Tucker Carlson

Since I started opining about politics four years ago, I've worked hard not to be a mindless hack. For me, that's meant trying to adhere to a few principles, and to analyze accordingly: If that meant Democrats ended up on the wrong side of the analysis, fine. If (less frequently) Republicans ended up on the right side, well, that was OK too. The important thing was to eschew tribalism and be intellectually honest. And if a few liberal friends rolled their eyes at me when I struggled with whether Barack Obama deserved my vote, I could live with that.

Then Tuesday happened.

And then George Will explained that the only reason the nation might re-elect Obama is race: We don't want a black man not to succeed. As though the president hadn't actually lost electoral support because of his skin tone.  It was amazingly patronizing, and it had the side benefit of letting Will avoid analyzing other reasons the electorate might not want to see Republicans in the White House, or confronting the idea that George W. Bush really damaged the GOP brand that badly.

And then, on Facebook, I witnessed an acquaintance muse that the only reason Obama is still alive is because (presumably politically correct?) would-be assassins didn't want to be responsible for killing the nation's first black president. (Those comments, thankfully, were later deleted.) As though President Obama doesn't actually face an unprecedented number of personal threats each day.  As though white guilt is the only force behind Obama's success.

And then, on Twitter, The Daily Caller, and Fox News, I watched the Republican establishment try to characterize a five-year-old speech by President Obama as somehow showing his "real," anti-white racism. (It didn't.) We watched anchors on Fox News tried to assess the president's "authentic" accent, as though he'd been shucking-and-jiving in front of a black audience. We watched, basically, as the GOP tried again to scare white voters with a niggerized cariacature of the president.

And, when asked what evidence for that cariacature was contained in the president's actual, four-year record of governance, conservatives were mostly silent. Except to warn we'd find out about the "real" Obama in his second term.

And I gained clarity.

There are good reasons to criticize President Obama. There are good, conservative reasons to criticize President Obama--if you really believe in limited government, ending or reducing the entitlement state, in lower taxes, there are good, principled reasons to oppose the president.

But the GOP establishment isn't betting on those reasons to carry the day. They're hoping to terrorize voters with trumped-up racial fearmongering.

And I don't want them to win.

I don't want people who buy this stuff to be on the winning side. I don't want people who sell this stuff to be on the winning side. I don't want Hannity and Carlson or any of the Breitbart crew to taste the champagne on on election night. I want them to lose, I want them to lose badly, I want them to be humiliated, because as bad as the last decade has been in this country, it's worse yet if a final, desperate roll of the Southern Strategy dice proves successful.

I don't like this side of myself. I want to be too rational to give into base tribalism. But more than that, I don't want them to win. So thanks, Tucker. Thanks, Hannity. Thanks, Drudge. You've given me clarity I didn't have before. I unambiguously want President Obama to win re-election. We'll deal with the fallout from that later. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

About that Drudge/Fox News video of Obama airing tonight

I'm glad that Republicans are very, very against "race hustling," or I'd be very concerned about tonight's Fox News video of the president speaking at Hampton University in 2007.

I'm very glad that George Will has explained that the only reason somebody would vote for Obama is because they don't want to oppose a black president.

I'm glad that Republicans have found old YouTube videos to prove the president's secret anti-whitey racism, because finding evidence of it in his actual governance is hard!

I'm glad that actual black people don't suffer the effects of racism in 21st century America, but I'm sad that the only victims of racism these days are white conservatives. I hope someday, when they're ready and educate themselves a little more, they can rise up and fight that oppression. But even so, they should really be grateful to be Americans anyway!

And hey, I'm glad this stuff happens when I'm agonizing over whether or note to vote for Obama. Because these events really do help clarify my decision.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Why Bill Marimow is wrong

Let me offer a necessary caveat up front: Bill Marimow has done more in and for journalism than I ever will: He's been at the helm of some great journalistic enterprises—the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and even did a stint at NPR—and collected a couple of Pulitzer Prizes along the way. He has decades of experience under his belt, and commands the respect of a lot of people in the news industry, and that includes me.

But boy, oh boy: His interview with Nieman Lab about the future of the Inquirer is not an encouraging read. I emerged from it more worried about the state of Philadelphia's most important media institutions than I was before.

And that's saying a lot.

Let me set the background: A few weeks ago, I wrote a column for The Philly Post offering what I called a "radical" proposal for the future of the Inquirer, the Daily News, and the company that owns them both: Make the Inky an all-digital publication, with a paywall and a Sunday-only print edition. In turn, get most of the DN offline and have it focus heavily on being the city's premiere print product.

I didn't really expect the proposal to go anywhere. But in an era of ever-diminishing returns for those publications, I hoped to spark a discussion on the kind of revamping that would allow the newspapers--I use that term generically, rather than meaning a specific print product--to survive and thrive five or 10 years from now.

Luckily, Nieman Lab's Adrienne LaFrance saw my piece, and asked Marimow directly about it. His response:
I did see that. Earlier I said we need to be excellent in every shape and form. Well, if the Inquirer were to go digital-only, it would deprive a whole generation of older readers. For instance, my mother is 89-and-a-half years old. She lives in Northeast Philadelphia and reads the Inquirer every day. She doesn’t own a computer. Her knowledge of computers, I would say, is minuscule. If there were no Inquirer in print, she would have to buy a computer, and at the age of almost 90, master new technology, or go to the Daily News, or stop reading. To me, that would be a big mistake. I’m a big advocate of making sure that everyone who values our content can get it in whatever format they want it, and that includes print.
I mean no disrespect to Bill Marimow's mother, but I am deadly serious when I say this: A business that's making major platform decisions based on the preferences of its 89-year-old readers is probably not a business that's going to last very long. For obvious reasons. That's not a cheap shot: That's just the truth. Consider this tidbit from a Pew survey in late 2010: "While 26% of all Americans say they read a print newspaper yesterday, that figure falls to just 8% among adults younger than 30." It's not that they don't want or don't care about news, though: That same age group was spending 45 minutes a day consuming news: It just wasn't from a newspaper.

In the next question, he built on that answer, defending print as a platform:
The argument would be: If every single Inquirer reader wanted something other than print, you could argue there should be no print. But in my opinion, there are a lot of people who may read the Inquirer or another paper online as a matter of convenience as opposed to a matter of preference. If their preference is print, then I think we should give them print, at least until an overwhelming number of our audience is totally converted.
If I'm reading Marimow correctly here, he's saying that print should be preserved because a lot of people like it better than reading the news in a digital format. But there's a difference between what people want and how people actually act: People may prefer reading in print—there's a real pleasure to it!—but every American editor who has reached Marimow's level is pretty aware of readership surveys that suggest newspaper subscribers often abandon the product because they don't have time for it, and unread newspapers end up piling up in the front hallway. As a general rule, it appears that convenience is a much bigger driver of news consumption habits than preference. Convenience is driving people online. A business that's making major platform decisions should give its audience what they'll actually use. 

Marimow does say that the Inquirer needs a better online presence, that has to be something better than what it is now—and boy, is he right about that. But to me, the most telling part of the interview is when he's asked how to do journalism in an era of declining resources:
The current owners purchased the company for $55 million, and they have no debt. So they have an opportunity to both strive for increasing revenues and also tightening their belt economically. If we’re successful in restoring the company to profitability, the more possibilities there are for increasing the newsroom coverage both in terms of space in the paper and staffing.
What this sounds like: "We're waiting to become profitable in order to do the kind of journalism we want to do again." That may be a long, long wait.

I'm not overly attached to the proposal I put forth at The Philly Post. But what I did attempt to do in the proposal is this: Accept that the good old days of plentiful resources aren't coming back. Accept that you're not going to be all things to all people. (It astonishes me that the front section of the Inquirer is still filled with so much national/international wire copy, for example.) Instead, retrench so that you can play to your strengths, both as journalists and in reaching your natural audiences. You will lose a few people along the way, but you'll be better set for the long run, instead of waiting for the next inevitable round of staff cuts.

Marimow's apparent vision seems to boil down to this: Same old Inky—trying to be all things to all people on all platforms throughout the entirety of the region—with a somewhat better web presence. There is more hope than apparent strategy there. And I don't think that's going to cut it.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Thinking about racism, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Jamelle Bouie

My conservative friends and I argue, from time to time, about the existence of racism in our politics. These conversations are always the most bruising, and they usually come down to the same calculus: I see racism in areas of our public and political life where they don't, and they resent being tarred as racists--or seeing others tarred as racists--for comments and actions that aren't necessarily racist. It's a conversation that happened again today in the aftermath of Mitt Romney's birth certificate joke, and my own cranky reaction to it. 

It just so happens that Ta-Nehisi Coates has an essay at The Atlantic called "Fear of a Black President," and the title alone, I think, is guaranteed to irritate and offend my conservative friends. "There liberals go again, blaming the backlash to President Obama on race instead of the real reasons for the intense opposition!" And yes, it comes from a liberal viewpoint. But I still hope it gets a good reading.

Because I don't think my conservative friends have to agree with Coates's conclusions about how race has shaped Obama's presidency. But I think and hope they might find it useful to consider why so many African Americans do see racism as an underlying factor. "Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred," Coates said. "It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye."

He writes:
The idea that blacks should hold no place of consequence in the American political future has affected every sector of American society, transforming whiteness itself into a monopoly on American possibilities. White people like Byrd and Buckley were raised in a time when, by law, they were assured of never having to compete with black people for the best of anything. Blacks used in­ferior public pools and inferior washrooms, attended inferior schools. The nicest restaurants turned them away. In large swaths of the country, blacks paid taxes but could neither attend the best universities nor exercise the right to vote. The best jobs, the richest neighborhoods, were giant set-asides for whites—universal affirmative action, with no pretense of restitution. 
Slavery, Jim Crow, segregation: these bonded white people into a broad aristocracy united by the salient fact of unblackness. What Byrd saw in an integrated military was the crumbling of the ideal of whiteness, and thus the crumbling of an entire society built around it. Whatever the saintly nonviolent rhetoric used to herald it, racial integration was a brutal assault on whiteness. The American presidency, an unbroken streak of nonblack men, was, until 2008, the greatest symbol of that old order.
After Obama won, the longed-for post-­racial moment did not arrive; on the contrary, racism intensified. At rallies for the nascent Tea Party, people held signs saying things like Obama Plans White Slavery. Steve King, an Iowa congressman and Tea Party favorite, complained that Obama “favors the black person.” In 2009, Rush Limbaugh, bard of white decline, called Obama’s presidency a time when “the white kids now get beat up, with the black kids cheering ‘Yeah, right on, right on, right on.’ And of course everybody says the white kid deserved it—he was born a racist, he’s white.” On Fox & Friends, Glenn Beck asserted that Obama had exposed himself as a guy “who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture … This guy is, I believe, a racist.” Beck later said he was wrong to call Obama a racist. That same week he also called the president’s health-care plan “reparations.” 
One possible retort to this pattern of racial paranoia is to cite the Clinton years, when an ideological fever drove the right wing to derangement, inspiring militia movements and accusations that the president had conspired to murder his own lawyer, Vince Foster. The upshot, by this logic, is that Obama is experiencing run-of-the-mill political opposition in which race is but a minor factor among much larger ones, such as party affiliation. But the argument assumes that party affiliation itself is unconnected to race. It pretends that only Toni Morrison took note of Clinton’s particular appeal to black voters. It forgets that Clinton felt compelled to attack Sister Souljah. It forgets that whatever ignoble labels the right wing pinned on Clinton’s health-care plan, “reparations” did not rank among them.
The entire piece deserves to be read at length. But the point is this: I think it's fair to say that African Americans often read racism into our politics and public life because for hundreds of years racism was interwoven and inextractable from our politics and our public life. It didn't always take the form of segregated fountains, lynchings, and racial slurs—it was part of the air that everybody breathed, and it was layered in with all the unspoken assumptions about how everything worked and everything should work, and white folks—having neither been the victims of all this, nor the heirs to the victims—wouldn't have noticed the particulars quite as closely as black folks did, nor passed along the understandings of those particulars. Bull Connor was the face of racism, and in some ways that's unfortunate, because the truth is that your sweet little grandmother from the South was probably also the face of racism to somebody, possibly and probably entirely without her intent. But being attuned to those less overt aspects of racist culture wasn't oversensitivity: It was a survival technique, handed down from generation to generation.

That doesn't explain why a white liberal like is also quick to see evidence of racism—or, to be more precise, a version of race hustling—in Mitt Romney's birther joke, I guess. But the irritation that some folks express at hearing accusations of racism often strikes me, at the very least, as an absence of empathy. If you'd been beaten down for 300 years, wouldn't you flinch the next time a man's hand was raised to you?

As I'm writing this, American Prospect writer Jamelle Bouie is tweeting about why African Americans often see racism in these things, and I think it's worth considering (with some edits):
To preemptively respond to the “why do you see racism in everything” trolls. The simple answer is that I don’t. Like most people of color, I don’t actually think about racism that much. It would be exhausting. I assume good intentions from most folks. And I don’t attribute ill motives to everyone who says something a little weird. But here’s the thing. If it seems like minorities notice racism a lot, it’s probably because there’s more racism than you think. After all, WE’RE THE TARGETS. And since we also live in this country, and were also exposed to the same ideas and conceptions you were. We notice the racial content behind things like Romney’s welfare attacks, or “food stamp” president. How could we *not* notice it? 
 I’ll put this another way. Not too long ago, if you would have said, “Jamelle, women are constantly harassed during their days…” I would have said, “You have to be kidding me, I’ve never seen that happen at all.” But by listening to women and their experiences I realized that I was completely full of shit. Women are constantly harassed. And you know what, when you aren’t the target of it, maybe you should take them at their word, and assume they know what they're talking about. 
That’s really the only thing most minorities are asking. “Trust us. We recognize this stuff and it’s there.” Responding with some form of “You must be imagining things” is not the right answer. At least consider what we’re saying, first.

Empathy. Too often, we attribute bad motives to each other. (And that's probably true of me when I engage my conservative friends on race issues.) If we'd take five minutes to consider not just what is being said--the accusation of racism--but the forces that might have shaped that point of view, we might be able to have saner, kinder discussions about all of this.

In other words, to borrow Coates's phrasing: Maybe we should try to extend some of our broad sympathy toward the "other" to whom we would more naturally extend broad skepticism. It wouldn't solve everything—we still would have differences of opinion about all manner of things, and it's also true that there are more than a few people out there who are either cheerfully racist or happy to benefit from the racism of others. But most of us want to be understood as our best selves and not our worst; it might help if we offered others that same understanding.

Romney goes for the racist dogwhistle

So this happened:

This is Romney having his cake and eating it too, because—let's be honest here—birtherism is racism. And while Romney doesn't out and out endorse birtherism with this comment (leaving himself the wiggle room of plausible deniability) while still letting folks know that birtherism is somehow legitimate.

And hey, here's the thing Goveror Romney: Barack Obama has shown his birth certificate. Even if there were questions, they've been answered. When are you showing us your tax returns?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A quick series of rules for spotting political hoaxes

This afternoon, a friend posted to Facebook a startling story: Mitt Romney had told a crowd of supporters that he had received deferments from military service in Vietnam, because, well...
My father did not want me serving, and he convinced me that yes, I was too important to go to Vietnam. I had a greater purpose in life.
It was, of course, bullshit.

Here are my rules for sniffing out a political hoax. They're not failsafe, because nothing is, but they've served me well and kept me from blogging stupid, stupid stuff many times. The rules?

Use your common sense. Did the candidate's statement sound like surefire political suicide? Well, as dumb as most politicians can be, they usually have a strong sense of self-preservation. If it sounds like a candidate tossed that caution to the wind, you'll want to double-check your sources before posting something to Facebook or your blog.

Google it, and check for mainstream media sources. Yeah, yeah, the MSM is biased and dying. Guess what? They also love gaffes—hell, half of all political coverage these days is gaffe-centric: It's why we've spent the last two days talking about Todd Akin. If there's plenty of MSM coverage of the candidate's comments, you can be reasonably sure. If, on the other hand, the only places where a quote appears is in the comments of MSM stories or on message boards ... it's probably a hoax. The mainstream media is not hiding stuff from you.

• When all else fails, check It often has the answer.

Gaffes do happen, but not nearly as often as the Internet says they do. If a story sounds too good to be true—if it too neatly confirms your biases—then check it out. Nine times out of 10, the story that's too good to be true is.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How relevant are Paul Ryan's abortion views?

Not very, says Alana Goodman:
There’s only so much mud the Democrats can sling at Paul Ryan’s deficit plan before the public starts to catch on that the Democratic Party has no plan for tackling the problem whatsoever. So they’re still going to have to continue to make this election about small issues — hence the completely irrelevant attack on Ryan’s views on abortion.
Completely irrelevant? I don't think so. 2010 was a big year for Republicans, who swept into office on voter anger about the economy and President Obama's perceived failure in handling it. And those economically oriented Republicans then set about in Congress and in the states to attack Planned Parenthood and tighten abortion restrictions wherever they could. (I call this move the "Reverse Thomas Frank.") Paul Ryan doesn't want to talk about abortion? Fine. That doesn't mean abortion isn't an issue.

Not that it's a terribly complicated. If you're pro-life, vote Republican. If you're pro-choice, vote Democrat. Paul Ryan is a Republican; it shouldn't be a surprise where he stands. But reminders of this simple truth might affect swing voters, who can decide just how relevant the information is.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Somebody that you used to know.

Via Andrew Sullivan: Gotye re-mixes all his YouTube admirers:

Since my surgeries last year, I'm a little more prone to weepiness at unusual moments. I held my fire on this one, but ... I think the living room might've been a little dusty. Ahem.

Oh, hell. I find this stuff inspiring. People took a piece of art that they enjoyed and created something new with it. And in turn, the original artist took their work ... and made something new out of that. There's something profound and maybe even a little sacred about that process. And yeah, I'm moved by it.

I know there are still a few people out there who deny that remix and mashup culture create real art. They're wrong. All remixes and mashups do is make explicit the age-old transaction of art, and do it something much closer to real time. It's a joyous, beautiful, wonderful thing.

In any case, this stuff gets to me all the time. Here's a Radiohead piece that (yes) made me sob when I was deep into my Percocet last year:

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The death penalty and vengeance: A reply to William Voegeli

I woke up this morning to discover William Voegeli talking about me at National Review:
After Jonah Goldberg applied the case for capital punishment to the Aurora shootings, the liberal blogger Joel Mathis argued that executing James Holmes would serve no purpose other than retribution. Mathis implied that 1) deterrence can’t be part of the death-penalty debate in a case like the movie-theater atrocity, since people wicked or unhinged enough to contemplate perpetrating an unprovoked massacre of random strangers are unlikely to work through any cost-benefit analysis; and 2) there are people who think retribution is “justification enough” for capital punishment, but Mathis isn’t one of them and has a low opinion of those who are.
I think Voegeli inferred just a bit too much here: After all, he's clearly in favor of retributive capital punishment and I think highly enough of him—even if we disagree about many, many things. And more precisely, I wasn't arguing that you couldn't make the deterrence argument in the Aurora massacre—only that nobody, including Goldberg—had made the argument. Colorado does have a death penalty law on the books, after all, even if the punishment itself is rarely used. I can see that rare use being part of a deterrence argument for the death penalty (if only Colorado were more like Texas, maybe this wouldn't have happened?) but as Voegeli suggests, Holmes is apparently unhinged enough that it seems likely he would have killed with or without the threat of being executed as punishment.

In any case, his argument for the death penalty seems to boil down to this:

• Killers who are killed cannot kill again.

• Removing the death penalty from the spectrum of punishment makes it much more difficult to properly end effectively punish crimes of all varieties.

• Murder victims and their families deserve justice that can only be satisfied with a blood-for-blood penalty.

Underlying his argument is the explicit suggestion that without the death penalty, America will become the kind of namby-pamby European state where murderers will be free to walk the streets because we're too squeamish to do the right thing.

Let's take all of this one point at a time.

Killers who are killed cannot kill again. Voegeli doesn't try to argue that the death penalty deters murderers, but that it will deter recidivism. "Thwarting careers in crime is a big part of the criminal-justice system’s mission, and studies consistently show that executed murderers have lower recidivism rates than incarcerated ones," he writes. (I assume there's some tongue-in-cheek here; executed murderers are incapable of any activity, much less committing new crimes.) Voegeli continues: "However, if — a big if, but a theoretical possibility — we can imprison people in ways that guarantee they will pose no threat to anyone inside the penitentiary (or outside in the case of an escape), then every justification for capital punishment has been discarded."

It appears Voegeli's effort here is to place the burden of perfection on death penalty opponents: If you can guarantee that a murderer will commit no harm, inside or outside of prison, then maybe we don't need a death penalty at all—but of course, no such guarantee can ever be made, and I won't try to make it.

This argument also implicitly flips one of the central critiques of the death penalty system as it exists in the United States today. (Or, one could say, systems, since each state with a death penalty has its own, possibly unique, version of the process.) The critique says that the death system is wildly imperfect, to the point that it produces wildly unjust results: You're more likely to be executed if you're black, or poor, and so on. And we've seen that the sentence of death--if not the execution itself--is often applied against people who turned out to be entirely innocent of their crimes.

If we're pitting imperfection against imperfection, then, my bottom line is this: It's much easier to isolate convicted murderers both from society and from general prison populations—maybe a death row without the death?—than it is to construct a death penalty system that is fairly applied and which does not pose the likelihood of itself killing innocent people.

Removing the death penalty from the spectrum of punishment makes it much more difficult to properly end effectively punish crimes of all varieties.  This argument takes several forms in Voegeli's piece. He suggests the existence of a death penalty makes it easier for prosecutors to have leverage to get convictions and pleas from murderers. More expansively, he suggests a slippery slope, where ending the death penalty here will lead to scenes like the one in Belgium, where a woman recently exited prison after just 16 years. Her crime: Starving two young girls to death; those girls had been sexually molested by her husband. It's ghastly.

Voegeli writes: "The court’s decision effectively tells Belgians — including the murdered girls’ families — to get over it: Yes, what happened to those poor girls was dreadful, we’re terribly sorry and all that, but it was a long time ago, and since nothing will bring them back we should all get on with our lives. The continued punishment of people who, in the experts’ opinion, pose no further threat amounts to nothing more than retribution — in this view, an unacceptably primitive motivation."

Well. I'm against the death penalty, and I'm against this woman being free on the streets of Belgium. Maybe this is the place to explain that I'm not against retribution as a component of all punishment; I can't speak for other death penalty opponents, perhaps, but I'm a firm believer in "you do the crime, you do the time." I suspect that a lot, probably most Americans, are the same way. It's just that I believe that retribution that kills people is a bridge too far; I'm simply  not inclined to grant government the power to kill its citizens with premeditation. But I believe that a death-penalty-free penal system in America would probably have an American flavor, one that still believes in making people suffer and pay for their sins. And I'm OK with that.

Voegeli elaborates on this theme: "Before America decides to emulate the enlightened nations that have abolished capital punishment, we should ponder the fact that such enlightenment culminates in the aversion to any punishment. Saw off the top rung of the penal ladder and there’s no good reason not to remove the one below it, and then the next."

While repeating that I'm OK with punishment-as-retribution, I also can't help but look at this suggestion and think it a good thing. America houses nearly one-fourth of the entire world's prison population; that's a statistic that, to me, suggests we're wildly over-incarcerating people. I don't think that ending the death penalty implies an overall rethinking of our punishment structure, but if it does, well, maybe that's a feature instead of a bug. I can believe in punishment and still believe we're doing too much of it; they're not mutually exclusive ideas.

• Murder victims and their families deserve justice that can only be satisfied with a blood-for-blood penalty. Voegeli writes that without the death penalty, "government echoes and validates, rather than drowns out, criminals’ assertions about the irrelevancy of their victims’ rights, and the concomitant derision of the survivors’ grief. 'I believed this would not happen,' said the father of one of the girls Michelle Martin’s husband murdered. 'If Martin gets an early release, then who will they keep in prison?'"

To be honest, though, this is the toughest argument of all to answer, because it gets at something more visceral than any bullet-pointed blog can affirm or refute. If the father of a dead little girl needs to see the murderer killed in order to feel that justice has been done, how can I persuade him otherwise? I'm not sure I should even try. I can't imagine that loss; I can't imagine how I'd react. I won't be the person to tell this or any such man that his reaction is "wrong."

As Voegeli notes, however, it is not the girl's father who imposes the death penalty, but "the people" acting through the government. That's a structure that, among other things, makes our judicial system something both more and different from a lynch mob or an aggrieved family. There's deliberation involved; the rights of the victims and (yes) the perpetrators are taken into account, but also the good of the broader society; the end result tells us not just about the crime, then, but about society itself and what it values. You'll never do away with the state's capacity for violence--you probably shouldn't, at least entirely--but my own preference is that that capacity be as constrained as is possible. In my ideal world, the death penalty would fall outside those constraints.

Voegeli concludes: "If opponents of capital punishment want America to join in rejecting retribution, they should make something clear: Does their campaign stop once the death penalty is abolished — and, if so, on what basis can wringing every trace of retribution out of the criminal-justice system be limited to abandoning executions? Or is the goal to follow such moral sensibilities to their logical conclusion, rendering American justice indistinguishable from the kind provided in Belgium, Scotland, and Norway?"

As I say, I'm not against retribution as such--only capital retribution. And I reject Voegeli's slippery slope argument of Europe being the likely end-state of a death-penalty-free America; the character of Americans and Europeans is simply different in this regard.

With all of that said, Jonah Goldberg's original column purported to make a case for the death penalty, but really made more of an un-case: "Why not kill this guy, James Holmes?" My response boiled down to: "Well, you can, but that doesn't make the death penalty system itself right or just." Voegeli makes a much stronger philosophical case for the idea of the death penalty system; my ultimate problem is that in the real world it isn't--and probably can't be--so well applied.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Lies, damned lies, and Harry Reid

Almost none of my liberal friends liked my Monday column for The Philly Post, in which I took Harry Reid to task for his apparent lies about Mitt Romney's taxes. The best response came from a friend via email:
Eh, you're not making the sale with me on this one.  I think you're too enamored with "civility" in general.   The Republicans' and Rove's treatment of Clinton, Kerry and Obama just isn't in even the same moral universe as alleging that (someone said that) Romney didn't pay taxes.  And what these Republicans stand for--in terms of policy--is just morally wrong, so I don't much care how we oppose it, as long as it's legal and it gets the job done. 
Here, he quotes from my column: "But if we’re now at a point where we openly and knowingly root for our side to do a better job of lying to and misleading the public better than the other guys can, well, then, the game is over. Governance will have little relationship to the truth, and that will mean that democracy is all but done for. And Harry Reid? He’s helping dig the grave with every unsubstantiated comment he makes about Mitt Romney’s taxes."
I don't think anyone has any illusions about what Reid's gambit is, and nobody would mistake it for "governance."  If there were any connection between habitual lying and the persistence of democracy, we'd all have been done for from day one.  And if we have to submit to a tax policy like Romney's proposing, many of us will be a lot closer to actual, rather than metaphorical, graves.      
I think it's possible I'm overly enamored with civility, sure, though much less than I was four years ago. It does remain important to me, to some extent, because I'm a liberal who went to a conservative college, grew up in a conservative state, and have lots of conservative friends. But civility isn't really my concern here. Truth is.

But as my friend points out, untruths--lies, let's call them--are the currency of politics, and it has ever been thus. Does it really reduce our ability to, you know, govern?

I think so. One reason President Obama and Republicans have been unable to compromise on issues like the debt ceiling is because both parties have reasonably different visions of government and its functions. There's a lot of substance that divides the two sides. But that's always been the case, yet that division is much more meaningful these days--nominees can't get confirmed, budgets can't get passed, etc.

Part of the reason why, I suspect, is because so many Republican voters believe that Obama is a socialist Kenyan Muslim--somebody who is so dangerous and "other" that a deal cannot and should not be made, because he is almost literally the devil. Substance divides us, in other words, but lies clutter up the demilitarized zone where deals can be made and government allowed to function.

Beyond that, I think marinating our politics in lies is simply corrosive, bad on its own terms. I realize that makes me naive, and not at all savvy at the Machiavellian game that so many folks play, but, well, I can live with that.

Is turnabout fair play, as some of my correspondents suggest? Is it so important that Romney be defeated that such tactics are justified? In the former case, I guess it depends on what you care about. In the latter case, if you're justifying such tactics because of the substance of Mitt's tax policy, why not make the attack on Mitt's tax policy? There's certainly plenty of grist for that particular mill.

I get it: Part of politics is defining your opponent negatively, and there are almost no limits on that. I still can't support Reid's tactics. Maybe it's because of my background: I've never been a professional political advocate; I spent most of my career as a daily newspaper reporter who wasn't allowed to root for either political party. I won't claim I was the best reporter that ever worked, but I had my moments. And what I cared about mostly in those days was the truth of a story--not about who won. And I hated it when people lied to me. That hasn't changed. If I have to choose between Obama and Romney this November, I'll vote for Obama. But I'm not a fan of lies, distortions, and McCarthy-style tactics no matter where they come from, and I'll point them out whenever I see them. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Letter to a Christian friend: Gays, and gay marriage, and (yes) Chick-fil-A

A good friend of mine from my Christian days emails me with some heavy queries: 
What would you say are the most important values everyone, regardless of belief, should pass on to their children? What would you want a Christian parent to teach their children that would be in line with Biblical teaching of Jesus Christ?  
What do you believe the appropriate Christian response to the Chick-fil-a ordeal would be? How should a Christian owner of a business conduct their business? What mistakes do you think the owner of Chick-fil-a has made?
Going beyond Chick-fil-a, what do you believe the appropriate Christian response to be to homosexuals? same sex marriage?

If Jesus is God and the Bible is true, and you were committed to live under the authority of Christ in all areas of your life, how would you respond to these questions? Do you think your responses would be different?
My response, edited and modified for the wider audience:
I really do respect and love my Christian friends, and my 30 years in the church informs much of who I am today. When I've been critical of Christians, it's often been noting the variance of their actions and political positions with what I understand the Mennonite understanding of Christianity to be; I've attempted to resist judging them against a secular standard. And I've resisted telling my Christian friends who are against gay marriage that they're wrong, because I think that it's perfectly legitimate as a Christian to read scriptures and see condemnation of homosexual activity in them. My sympathies are more with liberal Christians who have come to a different conclusion, but with my distance from the church, it all looks a bit like an argument over the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin; I don't share enough of a theological foundation to tell my brothers and sisters what their attitude toward same-sex marriage should be. 
Let me say this, though. 
Mennonites, I think, should step lightly on this topic--if only because they have a long history of being at variance with the culture, and having to flee country after country because of it. There's a history of exile because their beliefs and practices seemed odd and alien to their neighbors. And I guess it might behoove Mennonite Christians, in particular, to contemplate that history and what it says about the power of the state and if they'd want that power used to help or hinder their own relationships.

But I'm not Mennonite, not Christian, and my opinion doesn't count. 
What should Dan Cathy have done differently? From the perspective of his theology, I'm not sure. If he believes that gay marriage is wrong, and that he's called to witness that belief, well. You do what you gotta do. If he's obeying the dictates of his conscience--and I have no reason to believe otherwise--then, well, it is what it is.

His business does exist in secular culture, or at least a culture more secular than the circles he moves in. If he wants to use his business as a tool for evangelism, he should realize that it will limit his business. Certainly, I can't imagine my family choosing Chick-fil-A over the Wendy's next door, probably ever again. If he's comfortable with that tradeoff, that's his right and his choice to make. I can't tell him to do things differently, but neither do I have to support or accommodate his choices. Just as he doesn't (I think it's fair to say) support or accommodate many of mine. (To clarify, again: He has the First Amendment right to his beliefs and expressions of same; government shouldn't punish his business because of those expressions.)

I don't expect Christians not to be Christians, in other words.

How would my answers differ if I was, essentially, Christian? I don't know, though I have my suspicions. For a variety of reasons, I'm not Christian anymore; it's been a conscious choice, one that has some attendant pain. But I worked to make my last church open and accepting to gays, not as subversion, but as an expression of the values that I and others felt, well, called to at the time. It's possible I was never a good Christian. 
At the very least, though, I'm pretty sure that Jesus would've hung out with gay people. Had dinner with them, that kind of thing. I'm not sure where he'd find himself in a church I've long thought--since our college days, at least--emphasizes the supposed "evil" of homosexuality to an outsize degree. As always, the church is urging its neighbors to pluck the cinder out of their eye while failing to notice the beam in its own. It was ever thus. 
That said, you and I differ--value-wise--on this, and maybe only a few other things. The things I teach my child, I expect, are pretty much the things you teach your child: To be honest; to be kind, especially to those less fortunate than you; to treat others as you'd have them treat you. The lessons aren't terribly complicated, but they're awfully tough to live, aren't they? I know I continue to fail.

Thanks for your continued friendship. And thanks for listening.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


I'm not going to eat a sandwich today because one side wants me to. I'm not going to not eat a sandwich because the other side wants me to. It strikes me that there's something vulgar about the way fast food has become the battlefield upon which we do battle over an issue of civil rights, so I'm not going to play that game.

This is what I'm going to do:

I'm going to fervently hope that my gay and lesbian friends achieve the right to civil marriage.

I'm going to loudly advocate, using my little platforms, that that right be extended to them.

I am going to vote for politicians who agree with me on this issue, and against those who don't.

And I'm going to donate money, when I have it, to organizations that work to secure that right.

Finally, I'm going to demand that my elected officials respect the rights of those people who disagree with me, because that, too, is the right thing to do.

I ... won't participate in a gaudy display of face stuffing or tribalistic chest-beating over this. People are welcome to put their dollars where there values are; I understand and affirm that. But there's something about this Chick-fil-A brouhaha that trivializes the bottom-line issue: Who gets to have their relationships recognized--and with that recognition, access to a host of legal rights and institutions that make the coupled life so much easier to live. I believe that my gay and lesbian friends should have that right. And I believe that many--though not all--of my friends who feel otherwise will someday feel embarrassed by today's events.

UPDATE: Having just published this piece, I hit upon what I find disconcerting about the great Chick-fil-A support day: It's the display of giddy joy and pleasure being displayed by so many in their efforts to withhold such rights from their fellow Americans. I understand the arguments against gay marriage, and why some folks hold those beliefs: I don't begrudge them that. But I guess I wish it could be done soberly. Instead, it's devolved into team-spirit phallus-waving. And I am deeply dismayed by it.

Thomas Sowell's cherry-picking straw man

Thomas Sowell says President Obama and the elites are lying to you because, get this:
Perhaps the biggest lie of this election year, and the one likely to be repeated the most often, is that the income of “the rich” is going up, while other people’s incomes are going down. If you listen to Barack Obama, you are bound to hear this lie repeatedly. 
But the government’s own Congressional Budget Office has just published a report whose statistics flatly contradict this claim. The CBO report shows that, while the average household income fell 12 percent between 2007 and 2009, the average for the lower four-fifths fell by 5 percent or less, while the average income for households in the top fifth fell 18 percent. For households in the “top 1 percent” that seems to fascinate so many people, income fell by 36 percent in those same years.
Several big problems in two paragraphs:

• Having spent some time reading about this issue the last couple of years, I can tell you that the argument is not that the rich are getting richer and that the poor are getting poorer. Rather, it's that the super-rich rich are getting richer...and everybody else has been stagnating for the last 30 years or so, resulting in a reduced share of the nation's mostly growing prosperity during that time.

• That's actually been happening. The CBO took on that question in another report last year. And here's what they found:
As a result of that uneven income growth, the distribu- tion of after-tax household income in the United States was substantially more unequal in 2007 than in 1979: The share of income accruing to higher-income house- holds increased, whereas the share accruing to other households declined. In fact, between 2005 and 2007, the after-tax income received by the 20 percent of the population with the highest income exceeded the after- tax income of the remaining 80 percent.
Live by the CBO, die by the CBO. Here's a picture of that conclusion:

• That doesn't mean Sowell's CBO statistics are wrong, only that they provide too narrow a snapshot of the country's income—and at a bad time, during the brutal heart of the recession. Yes, all groups' income fell during that time period. Nobody denies that. The case is that the broad trend toward inequality is probably still under way, though we won't have CBO-generated post-2009 examination of the data for awhile yet. 

But there are plenty of hints—in continued high unemployment, in the still-staggering poverty rate—that post-2009 is going to look like the inequality trend is continuing. Will it? We'll have to see. But Sowell's numbers don't really prove what they say he proves. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Larry Mendte is wrong about Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-A

My Philly Post colleague Larry Mendte says this morning that people who boycott Chick-fil-A over Dan Cathy's stance on gay marriage are probably being hypocrites.
I need to get my car inspected this week, but first I have to send my mechanic a short survey to find out where he stands on a number of controversial issues. If he disagrees with me, I can’t possibly give him my business. And when I go to the supermarket, I need a grocery list of how the makers of each of the products I plan to buy stand on gun control, abortion rights and immigration. 
It sounds awfully silly, but that seems to be where we are heading after the Chick-fil-A gay marriage controversy.
Well, no.

The reason Mendte doesn't know about the political positions of his mechanic or grocers is because those folks probably haven't actually publicized those positions.  Dan Cathy, on the other hand, sat down for an interview with the Baptist Press that was explicitly designed to promote the link between the business and "Biblical values."

Here's part of the rest of the interview:
Cathy believes strongly that Christians are missionaries in the workplace. "Jesus had a lot of things to say about people who work and live in the business community," he said. His goal in the workplace is "to take biblical truth and put skin on it. ... We're talking about how our performance in the workplace should be the focus of how we build respect, rapport and relationships with others that opens the gateway to interest people in knowing God."
Now, there's something kind of admirable about this. There are plenty of Sunday Christians who leave their sense of morality and ethics in the sanctuary when they go to work the rest of the week; Cathy isn't one person at church and another at the office. So, you know, great.

But: Cathy has also made it his mission to publicize the thread between his faith and the way his business operates.  He has made "Biblical values"—and, specifically, "traditional marriage"—part of the Chick-fil-A brand.

That's his right. It's also the right of consumers to decide they don't care much for that brand. (It's not the right of government to punish Cathy's business for that stance, however.) It's not hypocritical for them to decide they'd rather spend their chicken sandwich money elsewhere.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Jonah Goldberg, the death penalty, and James Holmes

UPDATE: Welcome, National Review readers! You can find my response to William Voegeli here.

Jonah Goldberg has a column at NRO, saying that death penalty opponents are noticeably silent after the Aurora massacre because, hey, James Holmes is pretty inconvenient for their cause: "I say, let us give Holmes a fair trial. If convicted, execute him swiftly. If you disagree, explain why this man deserves to live."

The reason the death penalty debate hasn't flared up, post-Aurora, is because the debates have been focused on actions and policies that might've prevented the massacre in the first place. There are cases to be made both for gun reduction and arming citizens more thoroughly; there are arguments to be made about our mental health care system. Is anybody making the argument that the threat of the death penalty would've deterred Holmes? Even Goldberg isn't making that case. So the death penalty debate is kind of beside the point, as far as our current discussions go.

But, you know, Goldberg wants to have the debate. Since he implicitly concedes that deterrence isn't the point of the penalty—Colorado does have the death penalty, though it's rarely used—retribution is the real aim here. I'm not thrilled by the state killing people out of pure retribution, but I'll concede that many people may find it justification enough.

Goldberg's broader point, though, is that the existence of James Holmes somehow legitimizes the death penalty. There's no real question of his guilt, and he's white, so you can't say he'd be getting the punishment as the result of a racist system. Goldberg brushes off the idea of mental illness in this case, probably too easily, but there you go. This is an easy case, he's saying, so why not the death penalty now?

I've mentioned before the old lawyer's saw that "hard cases make bad law." Well, sometimes easy cases make bad law. James Holmes' plain guilt in this matter wouldn't make the death penalty system less likely to impose racially disparate punishments, wouldn't clear up the muddled questions of guilt in so many other cases. Goldberg doesn't argue that the death penalty system works well in the hard cases, only that it would in the easy cases. Well sure. That doesn't make the death penalty system worth the expense or the rampant injustice it's been shown to mete out. 

Bottom line: James Holmes doesn't prove the death penalty works. Want to execute him? The law seems to allow for it. Just don't pretend it means anything more than it does.

Death of football watch

New York Times: 
An autopsy report released this week, just before N.F.L. training camps opened, concluded that the former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, who committed suicide in April, had a degenerative brain disease widely connected to athletes who have absorbed frequent blows to the head. 
Easterling, who played for the Falcons for eight seasons in the 1970s, began coping with apparent dementia and depression about a decade into his retirement. Easterling was 62 when he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his longtime home in Richmond, Va. 
The autopsy by the medical examiner in Richmond found signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, progressive damage that has been linked to blows to the head, and determined that it was the underlying major condition that accounted for Easterling’s difficulties.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Local governments shouldn't crack down on Chick-Fil-A

I'll outsource my commentary to Adam Serwer:
Blocking construction of Chik-fil-a restaurants over Cathy's views is a violation of Cathy's First Amendment rights. Boston and Chicago have no more right to stop construction of Chik-fil-As based on an executive's anti-gay views than New York City would have had the right to block construction of an Islamic community center blocks away from Ground Zero. The government blocking a business from opening based on the owner's political views is a clear threat to everyone's freedom of speech—being unpopular doesn't mean you don't have rights. It's only by protecting the rights of those with whose views we find odius that we can hope to secure them for ourselves.
Yup. I'm not going to go out of my way to boycott Chick-Fil-A, because I've never actually had a meal there that I recall. But that's my private choice. A government decision to punish somebody's political or religious beliefs is wrong.

More to the point, it may also get in the way of actually advancing gay rights. One of the counterarguments to gay marriage is that conservative Christians fear they'll be legally required to, essentially, bless such unions. They see rights as a zero-sum affair: If gays win, they lose. That's not the way it has to be, and it's not the way it should be. If Boston and Chicago mayors prove otherwise, that will stiffen religious resistance to civil marriage. Which means that those cities' mayors aren't just wrong, they're also being tactically stupid in the service of scoring political points. That's not really all that principled.

UPDATE: A friend says that the mayors aren't actually threatening to block construction. That's mostly true: Boston's mayor started out in that spot, but backed off. Chicago's mayor is apparently just being blustery, but an alderman there seems to be trying to block stuff nonetheless. I don't blame these men for articulating their values, but government officials should always be leery of being seen as using their official powers to chill speech.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Maybe Noam Scheiber should pipe down

If you're going to adopt modest, smart, common-sense changes to gun ownership rules in this country, there's going to have to be one guiding mantra for liberals: "We're not going to take your guns away. We're not going to take your guns away. We're not going to take your guns away." Repeat.

Why? Because the NRA types out there are sure that every tiny move in the direction of regulation isn't merely a slippery slope, but a cliff over which the government pushing them straight into the jowls of tyranny and other purple-prosey mixed metaphors. The ability to stop psychos from ordering 6,000 rounds of ammunition online, like they're so many baby wipes, depends greatly—entirely—on the ability of advocates for such rules to convince those NRA types that we're not going to take your guns away. 

So while I'm the last guy who would ever tell a journalist to pipe down with his or her opinions because they don't actually help anything get accomplished in the real-world political realm: Maybe Noam Scheiber should pipe down.

One more thought about Jonathan Haidt and 'The Righteous Mind'

There was a moment at the end of our podcast with Jonathan Haidt when I wanted to leap up from my seat indignantly and shout, "You just don't get it sir!" I was restrained by a couple of things A) time constraints and B) the collegiality that is our default mode during these podcasts.

Some background: Haidt is a proponent of the "Moral Foundations Theory," which posits that humans essentially have six areas of morality that they care about. How does this make a difference in our politics? Well, Haidt says that conservatives tend to score highly in caring about all six areas of morality—but that liberals seem to care mostly about three. (Liberals apparently care less about proportionality, purity, and loyalty—and this puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to engaging their fellow citizens and earning their votes)

It was the loyalty part—conservatives care about it, liberals don't—that got me tripped up. I explain why in an early part of the podcast: Because my moral sense tells me that appeals to a national sense of loyalty can often be abused. Just look at what Michele Bachmann has been up to lately.

But toward the end of the podcast, we revisited the idea of loyalty, and Haidt ... well, "sneered" isn't too strong a word: He sneered at that fine old liberal bumper sticker that urges readers to "Support The Troops: Bring Them Home."

Here's what Haidt said:
"If you put that on your car, you're basically admitting you have no clue what it is to support your team when it's fighting an away game. You have no clue what it is to support the troops. You're saying (shifts into simpering voice): 'Well, morality is about protecting people from getting hurt, and I don't want the troops to get hurt, so I want to bring them home.' That just embarrasses your side. And liberals do this on a lot of issues."
Well. To heck with that.

In my lifetime, that "Support The Troops: Bring Them Home" slogan was used mostly in reference to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the years of warfare that followed. Lots of liberals were fine going to war in Afghanistan—we had been attacked on 9/11, after all—but were appalled by the decision to go to war in Iraq. There were several elements to this: Lots of folks doubted that Iraq had WMD weapons at all; others didn't think think the threat rose to the level of requiring armed intervention, but lots of people simply thought it was wrong to simply go start a war and invade a country that hasn't actually hurt you first.

Liberal opposition to the war did have a strong moral element then. It wasn't just "don't hurt people." It was "don't hurt innocent people." "Don't hurt people who haven't hurt us." "Don't hurt people for causes—WMDs—that turn out not to exist."

Most Americans didn't initially agree with liberals. But liberals turned out to be right.

And yet, many liberals also gave serious effort to "supporting the troops." Some of this was leftover from Vietnam, and its residual sense that returning troops had been unfairly treated. Some of it was the recognition that the troops have a job to do, and a boss who gives them orders, that Private John Doe isn't necessarily gung-ho about patrolling Baghdad, but is loyal and serves the country, and that those moral feelings of loyalty deserve—yes!—respect from liberals.

In other words: "Support The Troops: Bring Them Home" represented an often-conscious effort by liberals not to concede recognition of the troops' virtues to conservatives—but to do it within a framework that also holds onto the liberal moral belief that the war itself was wrong: That just because your "team" has taken the field does not always, automatically, make that team right. "Support the troops" and "bring them home" are ideas that are in tension, yes, but for me and millions of others, living with that tension is the morally praiseworthy thing to do.

Haidt's mockery, then, suggests to me that—despite all his research and well-intentioned efforts to hear the best of both sides—what he ultimately believes is that liberals should ignore their own moral judgements and let conservative moral judgements rule our sensibilities.

Again, to heck with that.

I think there are some fine things that liberals can learn from Haidt's research and books. We don't do a very good job understanding conservatives, it's true. Liberal dominance of the academy can lead to skewed research focus and interpretation, yes. It will not hurt us to be more aware of these things.

But if Haidt—a former liberal turned centrist—is concerned about academia's tendency to pathologize conservatism, I think it possible that he's done more or less the same thing in reverse. Liberals must do a better job understanding conservatives, yes. We don't need to become them to become better.

Who is behind the gun violence stalemate?

Craig Whitney's gun-violence op-ed in today's NYT is probably just a little too even-handed. "Unless gun-control advocates and gun-rights supporters stop screaming at each other and look for common ground on how to deal with gun violence, the next massacre is only a matter of time," he writes, and that sounds right. Let's dig out of our polarized mindsets and find some common ground!

Only there's this:

Liberals have to deprive the National Rifle Association of its core argument, that the real aim of all gun control measures is to strip Americans of their right to have and use firearms. Gun-control supporters must make clear that they accept that Americans have had this individual, common-law right since Jamestown and the Plymouth Colony; that this right was recognized in the Second Amendment to the Constitution in 1791; and that the Supreme Court affirmed its constitutionality in 2008. 
Here's the thing: That's pretty much exactly what liberals—those in positions of actual leadership—have done. It's largely a political thing: Democrats figured out in the mid-1990s or so that opposing guns was a sure way to lose votes, so they pretty much stopped opposing guns.

And it hasn't mattered. President Obama is remembered for his "clinging to their guns and their religion" comment, but almost nobody remembers that he also unequivocally stated: “I believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms." The NRA has refused to take "yes" for an answer, instead asserting without evidence that Obama has a "secret plan" to eviscerate the Second Amendment.

While liberals have moved to the right on the issue, so has the NRA. Which keeps even modest, commonsense restrictions off the table: In Pennsylvania, the legislature has worked to undermine rules in Philadelphia and other cities that require gun owners to report "lost" or "stolen" guns—guns that often end up in the hands of criminals and used in crimes. Even that modest requirement of responsibility is considered too steep an infringement on the right to own guns.

Liberals are already at the table of compromise—as Whitney later concedes in the op-ed, but only after advising them to do what they've already done. They just don't have a negotiating partner.

Meanwhile, a 13-year-old boy and his 17-year-old brother were shot to death in Philadelphia last night.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Who loses their freedom over gun violence?

There has been, of course, quite a bit of debate the last few days about gun violence and how to address it. At City Journal, Heather Mac Donald offers one effective solution: Stop and frisk
The police are heavily deployed in certain neighborhoods because that’s where incidents like Sunday’s shooting occur. Toddlers and recreational basketball players are not getting shot in the West Village; if they were, the police would be making stops there as well. Once in a high-crime area, the police use every tool they have to send the message that law and order remains in effect. Had the ordinary means of social control—above all, the family—not broken down in those neighborhoods, the police would not need to look out for and intervene in suspicious behavior. If communities don’t control their teenagers, however, the police will have to. And until mothers and fathers start socializing their children so that shooting someone no longer seems a normal response to a dispute, the choice will remain stark: put up with a higher level of stops (which, of course, should be conducted lawfully and respectfully) or with a higher level of shootings. There is, to date, no middle ground.
In fairness to Mac Donald, she doesn't at all mention Friday's Aurora shootings, and probably wrote the piece before the massacre happened.

And yet, there's something telling here.

When gun violence occurs in the inner city--among African Americans--our concerns for Constitutional rights are not as vigorous as they might be. Stop and frisk? It's the only way to preserve safety. It should be done legally of course, but is there anybody who sees the word "legally" here without ironic italics? It's almost always profiling, with almost no real cause to stop, and everybody knows it.

Move that violence to less urban, whiter enclaves--where it's perhaps less frequent but often much more spectacular--and First Principles are asserted with a vengeance. Yes, a dozen people are dead, but Founding Fathers! Second Amendment! Right of Self Defense! And politicians, wary of messing with the NRA, back down.

We are, in short, very willing to infringe on other folks' freedoms in response to gun violence. I somehow doubt we'll be profiling brilliant white loners anytime soon.