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.