03 September 2015

Judge not, lest ye go to jail

Who was more lenient? The plaintiffs suing the Rowan County (KY) Clerk for contempt, who asked that she be fined rather than jailed, or the judge who ruled today that Kim Davis should go to jail? The fine might seem more lenient, but if it plaintiffs meant it to be so burdensome that Davis would feel compelled to resign, the time in jail, with no monetary penalty necessarily attached, and no threat (as far as I know) to her remaining in her elected office, probably looked more attractive to the embattled Clerk, a Christianist homophobe who has refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples on the assumption that "the authority of God" overrides the U.S. Supreme Court. Going to jail is certainly more dramatic, which will help her inevitable "as told to" book. She might even get a movie made with this sort of drama in her story. Thrice-divorced woman gets born again and becomes a brave defender of the divine sanctity of marriage in the face of secular humanist pervert persecution -- I think there's an audience for that sort of thing. Meanwhile, state law says she can only be removed from office through impeachment and conviction by the state legislature, and I wouldn't hold my breath for that. It's more likely that she'll resign, once out of prison, to take advantage of her new celebrity. Whatever she does, her case ought to be a teaching moment for everybody. What I hope people learn is that Davis is not legally (not to mention morally) equivalent to those private businesspeople who claim a religious exemption from demands for service from potential customers they find objectionable on religious grounds. It is one thing, and odious enough, to refuse service to gays due to superstitious intolerance, but it would be another if that legendary homophobic baker attempted to prevent the gay wedding from taking place at all. That's what Davis has been doing. To put it a different way, it's one thing to opt out, as homophobic businesses apparently may do, and another to obstruct citizens in the exercise of their rights, as Davis has done. It's one thing to refuse to obey an order you deem immoral, and another to frag your superior officer; doing the latter crosses the line at a necessary cost. The only ethical thing Davis and other obstructionists can do in the face of the Supreme Court's decision is resign their offices; anything more is less an assertion of their own rights of conscience than a violation of other people's rights. To borrow some old phraseology, your conscience ends where another person's rights begin, or else you're waging revolution against the prevailing legal and social order, and presumably accepting the risks that come with that. Not that there's much risk in this case, with Davis's fame assured and probably immune to shame. We can only hope to make her a byword in civilized circles for reactionary bigotry, the modern equivalent of George Wallace at the schoolhouse door. And when her defenders, including the despicable Mike Huckabee, assert the authority of God, we can answer that when the word of God conflicts with the Constitution of the United States, God's word is not law, but lawlessness.

02 September 2015

The peak of absurdity

The interesting thing about the dispute over Mt. Denali (or is it just "Denali?") in Alaska is how solicitous some people have become toward the memory of William McKinley. The mountain, long known by natives by some variant of "Denali," was first associated with the U.S. President before he took office. According to Wikipedia, a gold prospector hopefully renamed the mountain in 1896 after the then-candidate and champion of the gold standard. It was formally named Mt. McKinley is a spirit of reverence toward the since-martyred President in 1917. Tastes change, of course, and starting in the 1970s Alaskans sought to restore the mountain's original (or aboriginal) name. The recent move by the President authorizing an official restoration of the Denali name reportedly has bipartisan support in Alaska, and while our most famous Alaskan hasn't yet been heard from to my knowledge, Governor Palin referred to the mountain as Denali during her time in office. Meanwhile, there has been bipartisan outrage in Ohio, the onetime "Mother of Presidents" and McKinley's home. Ohio lately has been a pivotal state in presidential elections and neither major party, presumably, wants to miss any opportunity for advantage. Each, then, will rise up to protest this perceived slur on their state and their hero, and they have a friend in Donald Trump, who has tweeted a promise to restore the McKinley name if elected President. I'm really surprised that so many people care about a President whose most positive achievement, arguably, was to stay in a Buffalo receiving line long enough for Leon Czolgosz to clear the way for Teddy Roosevelt. McKinley was a protectionist whose signature tariff legislation raised rates but reportedly resulted in reduced revenues for the government. We're stuck with Puerto Rico and Guantanamo Bay because of the Spanish-American War McKinley waged (admittedly much goaded by TR). Some Republicans may yet think of the McKinley administration as a golden age, but today's provocateurs seem more concerned about the hurt feelings of Ohio than the neglected memory of the man. All this chivalry toward Ohio is opportunistic, of course, but it's also euphemistic; it's a way to denounce the President for "political correctness" in his apparent favoring of Native heritage over national history without having to say the words. Maybe the fact that Alaskan Republicans favor "Denali" makes the usual railing against political correctness politically incorrect this time -- and maybe, just maybe, this is an early hint that the rhetoric of "political correctness" is growing tired, or at least less appealing to Republicans tired of Trump taking the issue from them. As for the mountain, since it's part of a national park I suppose we're all entitled to a voice in the naming. Why not make a popularity vote of it like the recent contests for new faces on the $10 or $20 bill. Actually, let's get some revenue out of this. If people care enough to have an opinion, let them pay to vote, while the rest of us who don't really care one way or another get some benefit out of it. Let then nominate any name they want, while we're at it, and then we'll really see democracy at work.

01 September 2015

A theocratic insurrection in Kentucky

Ever since the right to refuse service to gay weddings was equated with religious freedom, I've challenged religious homophobes to prove that their religion and their salvation require them to repudiate gay weddings, my own position being that, whether I really like it or not, religious believers should not be compelled to do anything that would discredit them within their religion or condemn them, according to that faith, to Hell or its equivalent. My hunch had been that no religious homophobe could prove that their souls would be jeopardized by catering to gay weddings -- but I had not reckoned with Kim Davis, the Clerk of Rowan County, KY. Citing religious grounds, she has refused to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples in her county, and continues to refuse even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that she had no right to refuse. Davis announced her defiance today and explicitly stated that she refused "under God's authority" to issue the licenses. She elaborated on her stand in a press release, explaining that, in fact, for her at least, whether or not to issue marriage licenses to homosexuals is "a Heaven or Hell decision." Davis believes that she is as securely protected against reprisal as a public official as private businesses are under the federal and state constitutions and Kentucky's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but she faces prosecution as gay couples have sued her for contempt and will be subject to financial penalties, at least, if found guilty. Whether the county government will hold her accountable depends on the political and religious environment there, but her refusal to resign disqualifies her from any claim to leniency. It would be one thing, and perhaps questionable at that, if she challenged the requirement to issue the licenses on constitutional grounds, but the Constitution is at best her second line of defense. Instead, this public official claims the prerogative to put "God's authority" before the word of the Supreme Court. If a Muslim tried this a mob would be out with torches and pitchforks, and people in some states have even proposed legislation against such a possibility. Kim Davis is doing nothing different from what many fear Muslims want to do. She is claiming that a Christian shari'a overrides the supreme law of the land. Worse, instead of resigning with some vestige of honor, she is claiming a right to override the supreme law of the land herself, while in a position of public responsibility, based on a personal interpretation of her religion that we have to take on faith, since she cites no scriptural authority for her implicit claim that allowing gay weddings is a mortal sin. The lines can hardly be drawn more starkly. It may be that no one has the power to remove her from office immediately, but whatever due process is required to remove her is by now overdue.

31 August 2015

Black rage matters

This morning I read that Kanye West, in a moment of altered consciousness during an awards show last night, announced his candidacy for the 2020 Presidential election. I don't think he meant that too seriously, but it was an intriguing coincidence, since I had just read Mychal Denzel Smith's article in the August 31 Nation tracing the "Rebirth of Black Rage" to West's notorious accusation, during a fundraising program for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, that George W. Bush didn't care about black people. Smith draws a line from that unscripted outburst to the Black Lives Matter movement, albeit with a significant interruption during Barack Obama's first Presidential campaign. Smith's article is a defense -- more than that, a vindication -- of black rage, defined as "a radical critique of the system of racism that has upheld all of our institutions and made living black in America a special form of hell." It "cuts through [the] bullshit" whenever anyone claims that "racism is a nonfactor" or unilaterally declares racial harmony in America.  It's "about holding America accountable," and Smith, anticipating critics, asserts that "If black rage has prevented alliances from forging, those are likely not alliances that would have yielded much in the way of progress anyway." President Obama is faulted for trying to suppress healthy, legitimate, black rage. He accuses the President (whose job, Smith understands, is "not to represent black America") of perpetrating, in several of his best-regarded speeches, an "invalidation of black rage." Obama too often goes out of his way to "make black anger seem unjustified or undignified." He does this, Smith argues, whenever he indulges in "false moral equivalencies" like discussing black-on-black crime during the Trayvon Martin controversy or observing that rage distracts blacks from addressing (in Obama's words) "our own complicity ... in our own condition." Such rhetoric from a President in Obama's unique historic position "provides further ammunition for those who believe that black people's anger at racism is unjustified."

I think Smith meant to write that such people believe that black people's perception of racism is unjustified. What Smith seems to mean by "black rage" is a permanent j'accuse directed at the American (and implicitly white) establishment, an insistence that racism remains the necessary and sufficient cause of racial inequality, black poverty, and black crime, independent of the behavior of black people. It rejects a perceived argument that, after a certain degree of progress culminating in Obama's elections, black behavior becomes, if not the necessary and sufficient cause of black poverty, than at least a significant cause independent of the country's racist heritage. In short, black rage doesn't want to hear "the added moralizing about sagging pants, missing fathers and 'acting white'" that Obama and other black leaders feel obliged to include in their speeches and writings. As defined by Smith, black rage presumes that, since "racism has built America," nothing short of radical change as yet unseen can take the blame off a racist society and culture. Black Lives Matter expresses this rage by demanding that politicians recognize a problem believed to impact blacks disproportionately if not exclusively and deal with that problem even if doing so is perceived by the opposition to benefit only black people. It's not surprising that Smith's own checklist for radical exchange barely extends past the criminal justice system. Giving Obama credit for once following a recent speech, Smith notes approvingly the President's call for "the end of mass incarceration, the reduction or elimination of mandatory-minimum sentencing, the restoration of voting rights for the formerly incarcerated, the end of rape in prisons, and more." It seems that Smith, if not Obama, could be more radical yet, but to be truly radical in social and political terms would be to go beyond what the most enraged blacks demand most urgently. Some of their demands are as legitimate as they are urgent, but just as black rage protests that the country hasn't changed enough, it may be that black rage itself doesn't demand enough change. This is the ground from which to critique black rage in general or Black Lives Matter in particular. It isn't the position of stubborn universalism (i.e. "All lives matter, stupid!") but it assumes that black lives won't be made that much better by policies that assume that only black people are wronged in this country, and that if blacks are satisfied by changes that soothe their particular sense of grievance only, then self-interested racial justice may fall tragically short of real social justice. To sum up, Black Lives Matter is a fine thing to say, but if that's all anyone has to say, if it ends the discussion, then too little has actually been said.

26 August 2015

Amoklauf on the air

It was only a matter of time before an amoklaufer filmed his fatal exploits, and this time the killer was a veteran of the TV news business. His phone made him a player in the ultimate first-person shooter game. So absorbed in their work were his targets -- to him, his tormentors, -- a TV reporter and her cameraman, not to mention the woman being interviewed, that the gunman could stand, from our perspective, right in front of them and level his gun more than once for the camera's benefit before finally opening fire. Then the victim's camera caught the reporter screaming and stumbling out of frame as the cameraman fell, and then this camera, with the new objectivity of death, captured the killer as he surveyed his handiwork. It's the ultimate "found footage" horror film when you put the two streams together, but for the murderer it was, as usual, revenge for a lifetime of slights. White people were mean to him because he was black. Black people were mean to him because he was gay. Gay people probably had some reason to be mean to him, and probably all these groups had good reasons. He didn't match the typical amoklauf profile of the angry white man, but he did take inspiration, so it's said, from the Columbine killers, just as he supposedly was galvanized to take up the gun by the Charleston massacre, and in the end he's just another disgruntled former employee taking things out on his former co-workers. We really ought to have a national employment database so we can track people who've been fired under particularly intense circumstances -- the TV station reportedly had to call 911 when they let this guy go -- and that should factor into whether you let such a person buy a gun, as this guy did without any known hitch earlier this year. I don't know whether this would be practical, but the idea hasn't got a chance in our political environment whether it's practical or not. Because too many people who refuse to trust government or almost any other institution demand that we trust them absolutely to be "good guys with guns," the bad guys with guns will keep on killing.

25 August 2015

A candidate kicks out a reporter; what will the media do?

No wonder Donald Trump is polling well. He seems to be the primary topic on CNN every evening, and while reporters may say they're paying attention because of the poll numbers I would add that his numbers probably remain high because of all the attention he gets from the media. I wonder if this will change following Trump's latest escapade. He kicked a news anchor for the Univision network, the most popular Spanish-language channel in the country, out of a news conference tonight. To be fair, the Univision reporter apparently tried to ask questions out of turn, and Trump did later allow him back in to ask his questions, but this couldn't look good to the rest of the media. There are ways to rebuke a reporter who speaks out of turn, and reasons to do so, above all his or her disrespect to fellow professionals, but throwing one out, especially one reputed to be the most influential Spanish-language reporter on TV, made it look, at least temporarily, as if Trump wasn't so much concerned with other reporters but simply didn't want to hear his questions. While this may be interpreted as part of Trump's grudge with Hispanics, could other reporters see this as a preview of how Nominee or President Trump might treat them if he decides he doesn't like them? Will they begin to treat him as something besides the ratings bonanza they apparently perceive him to be? After all, this is a man who intends to interpret the Fourteenth Amendment to suit himself, regardless of precedents. Why wouldn't he also interpret the First Amendment the same way, for the same reasons? Maybe he'd think differently if the media carried out a one-day-or-more boycott of his campaign to protest his treatment of a fellow journalist. But who am I kidding? His stunt today is just the sort of wild act reporters hope to see by following him so closely and thoroughly. Reporters are a competitive lot, and when they see one of their own treated a little roughly, you have to wonder whether they see a threat or they simply see news.

24 August 2015

The bull (in the China) market

Is Mao laughing? From all appearances it looks like the Chinese are making all the same mistakes in the stock market that capitalists make. Their markets are tanking despite government efforts to prop it up, and in our globalized economy that means markets everywhere suffer. If anyone had an idea that, as an authoritarian government, the Chinese Communists (should they be called CINOs?) would ignore hysteria and take wise steps to right a listing economy, recent developments make that idea look silly. In a desperate looking effort to get more money into the market, the Chinese are now allowing pension funds to buy into the market. They're also encouraging individuals to invest and speculate more. Americans could have told them these are not really the ways to stabilize a turbulent market. Nor has the advice of Marx, Lenin, Mao or Deng kept the Chinese from pumping up a bubble that now seems to have burst. I know that Deng set China on a path of creating wealth before creating socialism, but I would have thought that there'd be more caution on that path and a lot less recklessness. But the Chinese seem to have gone full capitalist on the assumption that greed is good during at least one necessary stage in history. They've gone to the opposite extreme from Mao's insistence on imposing collectivization and industrial production on an unprepared populace, and to be fair to the current generation we most likely won't see the sort of mass starvation that Mao's policies caused. But objective observers would have expected China to seek a middle ground, having experienced Mao's excesses yet remaining conscious, as Communists, of capitalist excesses. But despite what they may think of themselves as Communists or as Chinese, they are only human and some temptations, it seems, were too great for them. They also face the same problem as the rest of the world: they need consumers more than they need workers in an increasingly automated economy, but people need work, or else government subsidies, in order to consume. Developed nations everywhere have more people than their economies can use -- as their economies are now arranged -- and in persistently underdeveloped countries the situation is worse. Booms and bubbles inevitably fail because consumption has limits, some natural, some artificially imposed. Ideally an economy will neither boom nor bust when its first priority is providing for everyone's needs, not rewarding the greediest. You're not going to see such an economy under capitalism or under any kind of Communism we currently see on earth. But as progressives say, another world should be possible in which investments in real progress aren't crapshoots and success means everyone wins. Just don't depend on someone to give you that world. Ordinary people have to make it themselves.