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The Boy Scouts and the Church

Yesterday, the Boy Scouts of America ended its ban on gay volunteer Scout leaders. The LDS Church, a major Boy Scout sponsor, responded with this statement:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is deeply troubled by today’s vote by the Boy Scouts of America National Executive Board. In spite of a request to delay the vote, it was scheduled at a time in July when members of the Church’s governing councils are out of their offices and do not meet. When the leadership of the Church resumes its regular schedule of meetings in August, the century-long association with Scouting will need to be examined. The Church has always welcomed all boys to its Scouting units regardless of sexual orientation. However, the admission of openly gay leaders is inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church and what have traditionally been the values of the Boy Scouts of America.

I don’t understand any part of this. First of all, I do not understand the scheduling issue. Granted, Church leaders were on vacation, but surely they could have taken a day or two off to attend a meeting. We’re talking, after all, about the main youth organization for LDS boys living in the States. You couldn’t make a conference phone call; you couldn’t skype?

More to the point, though, what possible objection could there be to having gay Scout leaders? The policy change allows local councils to allow local units to choose its own leaders. If the Church didn’t want any gay Scoutmasters in LDS-sponsored troops, the new policy accommodates that stance.

Let me see if I can unpack it a little. I suppose that there may be some lingering fear over Scout leaders being pedophiles. But gay men are no more likely to be pedophiles than left-handed people are likely to commit arson. There simply isn’t any link between homosexuality and pedophilia. This issue has been carefully studied, and the research is clear. The idea that a gay scoutmaster might molest the boys in his troop is a prejudice without foundation.

(Of course, the BSA is quite appropriately concerned about actual instances of pedophilia. That’s why Scouting has instituted policies and protocols to prevent it, as have other youth organizations. Pedophiles are attracted to children–constant vigilance must be exercised. But that’s not relevant to this policy change.)

No, the Church’s concerns have, I believe, two other, very different causes. The first is that having openly gay Scout leaders might create the impression that homosexuality is not morally wrong. The Scout Oath requires Scouts and Scouters to be ‘morally straight.’ The presence of openly gay leaders could presumably complicate that message.

Break that down. I assume that straight, married Scoutmasters are sexually active. As a Boy Scout, that was never something I ever ever thought about. If that notion had popped into my thirteen year-old head, my reaction would have been ‘ewww.’ Straight, unmarried Scoutmasters may well also have been sexually active; if so, it was never any of my business. Married, gay Scoutmasters are likely also sexually active, but they’re not engaged in anything most people would recognize as a sin; they’re married. Unmarried gay Scoutmasters? Absolutely none of mine, or anyone else’s, business.

The difficulty is that the Church does not recognize gay marriage as morally valid, and therefore believes that even married gay people, if they’re sexually active, are doing something morally wrong; violating the law of chastity. The Church does not want to complicate the issue of gay marriage in the minds of teenaged boys. Even if LDS-sponsored troops all have straight, married Scoutmasters, those troops camp with other troops, in various councils and jamborees and camps and activities. I was the Program Director for two Boy Scout camps 30 or so years ago. Let’s suppose that an LDS-sponsored troop camps next to a troop with a gay Scoutmaster. Those kids are going to interact. I think the Church worries about a conversation in which kid A says ‘wow, your Scoutmaster is really cool’ and kid B says ‘yeah. He’s gay, and he’s awesome.’ And kid A suffers some kind of cognitive dissonance. ‘He’s a great Scoutmaster. But, wait, he’s gay? Huh.’

In fact, ‘morally straight’ is something each individual decides for himself. As Program Director, I remember we had a waterfront director named John; can’t remember his last name. He was terrific; a wonderful swimming teacher, a real outdoorsman, great with kids. His girlfriend would drive him to camp each week, and drop him off. Sometimes she would spend the night. It never bothered anyone, nor should it have. This was in the early ’80s, when I suppose someone could have made a big deal about John not being ‘morally straight.’ He was, obviously, cohabitating with his girlfriend. And many of the troops we served at our camp had minister/Scoutmasters. In Southern Indiana. Nobody raised any kind of fuss, ever, at all. John was a brilliant Scout leader, and that was all that mattered.

Still. The Church has its concerns. But I think there’s another factor involved.

The Church has always embraced Scouting. And that’s great; Scouting is a wonderful program. But in fact, Scouting and the Church have always been something of an awkward fit. Scouting is really a program for kids aged 11-16. Sixteen year olds are encouraged to join an Explorer post. Explorer posts are meant to specialize: in Engineering, High Adventure, Law Enforcement, Health Careers. The idea is that 16 year olds are more independent, more mobile, and interested in interacting with other boys with shared interests. When I was 16, the other kids in our ward were all pressured to find a specialty we all were interested in, and form a post together. But the only thing we all liked was playing basketball, and basketball was not one of the possibilities.

The Church mentioned starting their own youth program for boys, and maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. After all, the Boy Scouts is the youth organization for American LDS kids. Other nations have different programs. It makes sense to take the best ideas from all over the world, and create a uniquely tailored program for our kids. My guess is that plans have been made to do just that.

At the same time, I can’t help it; part of me is filled with dismay. I am an Eagle Scout; worked as a Scout leader, served on the staff of Scout Camps. I loved Scouting. And the reason is simple; Scouting was fun.

Scouting is fun. It’s supposed to be fun. I know that Scouting is supposed to teach values and skills and leadership traits and self-reliance, and I suppose all that does happen, some. But that was never the focus. We had a blast. We built signal towers and cooked on open stoves, and started fires and ran around and got in trouble and played mumblety-peg with knives and hiked hard trails, and played hockey on frozen lakes. I will never forget, until the day I die, a game of Capture the Flag we played, on a four mile course, the flags on two hilltops, a creek demarking the boundary between territories. Summer of 1971. I am old and sick and fat and can’t do most of that anymore, but I can still tie a one-handed bowline knot in less than five seconds. I still can tie a sheep shank and a double half-hitch. We learned those skills because our Scoutmaster made a game of it.

I am afraid that a Church-run youth program will make missionary prep a focus. I worry about the lessons and the (sorry, but it’s so) indoctrination. I am afraid that it won’t be fun anymore.

I hope my fears are unfounded. Just know that tensions between the Church and the Boy Scouts has been building for years. And I desperately hope the Boy Scouts survive. It’s a terrific organization for kids.

Bill Cosby, serial rapist

We think we know celebrities. We don’t. What we know is a carefully crafted persona, an image, meticulously buffed and refurbished. And sometimes those personae are edgy and tough and sometimes they’re pleasant and kind and family-friendly. And then we hear something about a celebrity that seems at odds with what we’ve imagined we know about them. And it takes awhile to process.

On Saturday, a 2005 deposition given by actor and comedian Bill Cosby surfaced. Forty-eight women had, in recent years, come forward and accused Cosby of various degrees of sexual misconduct, including many who said that he had drugged and raped them. Those accusations had been greeted with varying degrees of incredulity. This was, after all, Bill Cosby, one of the most beloved entertainers in America, winner of a 2002 Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. And, of course, our perceptions of Cosby were largely shaped by The Cosby Show, which ran on NBC from 1984 to 1992. Bill Cosby was, for most of us, Dr. Cliff Huxtable, the genial, kind-hearted and wise patriarch of that sit-com family.

It wasn’t just that Bill Cosby played a beloved TV Dad. He was black, and he was a pioneer. From 1965-1968, he played Alexander Scott on the comedy-spy TV series, I Spy. He was therefore the first black actor to play a leading role in an American TV drama. The premise of the show was that of two putative tennis bums who actually are working for the CIA. It was a buddy-cop-comedy, with Robert Culp as tennis star Kelly Robinson, who partners with Scott/Cosby. It was the kind of show that commented on race without ever commenting on race; Scott was just a character on a show, smarter and more sophisticated than Robinson, but not as intuitive. It was a fun show, witty and clever. During the time of that show, and for years thereafter, Cosby’s comedy albums were massive best-sellers; I remember memorizing entire bits. “It’s The Lord, Noah.” “Right.” “I want you to build an ark.” “Right. What’s an ark?” Listen to those old routines today, and they’re just remarkable; exquisite comic timing, beautifully shaped comedic narratives.

Also this: he wasn’t ‘a Hollywood type.’ Or so we thought; he was a good guy. Happily married, a college graduate, a happy family man, with four daughters. And–more sympathy– a son who was the victim of a terrible tragedy; murdered, senselessly while changing his car tire. Later on, Cosby became the spokesperson for black self-empowerment. He came out against rap music, against hip hop culture. A pull-your-pants-up, go-to-school, get-a-job cultural warrior. (But even this was expressed genially). That was also the point of The Cosby Show; the Huxtable home was beautiful; they were well-off people. He represented black aspiration, black achievement. African American gentrification. The Huxtables were an American ideal.

So this was the point: nobody wanted Bill Cosby, of all people, to be revealed as anything less than what he seemed to be, a good and decent man, an extraordinary talent, and a spokesperson for middle-class values. A sexual predator? No way!

Except there were always those accusations, all those women, saying they had been assaulted by him. Initially, when we thought about Cosby, those allegations were an annoying buzz we tried to swat away. It couldn’t be true. Bill Cosby, of all people. Get real.

But yes. On the deposition, Bill Cosby, under oath, admits to drugging young women with the intention of having sexual relations with them. He admits to paying women off with money from his personal account, so that his wife wouldn’t learn of it. These activities all took place years ago, and so his crimes are past the statute of limitations. He will, in all likelihood, never be criminally prosecuted. But he is, by his own admission, someone who used drugs on women, so that he could engage in what he called ‘romantic, sexual things, whatever you call them.’ As it happens, our society has a word for ‘romantic, sexual things’ that are non-consensual. That word is ‘rape.’ Bill Cosby is a serial rapist.

After defendant testified that he obtained seven prescriptions for Quaaludes, the following testimony was elicited:

Q. You gave them to other people?

A. Yes.

Q. When you got the Quaaludes, was it in your mind that you were going to use these Quaaludes for young women that you wanted to have sex with?

A. Yes.

So how do we process this? Lots of commentators have expressed amazement over the cognitive dissonance of combining the persona of ‘genial paterfamilias Bill Cosby’ and ‘serial rapist.’ But I think there’s a valuable lesson here, if we can disassociate the word ‘rapist’ from our usual understanding of it, a depraved and vicious lunatic leaping out from behind a tree and holding a knife to a woman’s throat. That kind of stranger-rape can happen, of course, but it’s also misleading. The ‘Cosby persona’ who was also a rapist was Cliff Huxtable. Daddy Huxtable is the rapist here.

Read the transcripts. Time and time again, Cosby would talk to young women, kindly and sympathetically, asking about their education, their families, their hopes and dreams. One young woman told him, tearfully, about coping with the death of her father. That’s the basic premise of most episodes of The Cosby Show.  One of the Huxtable kids would be struggling with a personal problem of some kind. Daddy Huxtable would listen, with great kindness and sympathy. And then he’d propose a solution, and off they’d go, problem solved. That’s what Cosby did with the various women who have accused him of attacking them. He would go into full Huxtable mode. He would listen, and he would sympathize. And then he would slip them a roofie and have non-consensual sex with them. And when they approached him later, he would cut them a check. From his personal account, so his wife wouldn’t know about it.

We need to learn from this; in fact, we need to internalize it. This is how rapists behave. Not all rapists, of course, but often enough. Most rape victims were attacked by someone they knew and trusted. Kindly old Dr. Huxtable was the rapist here. That was the persona Bill Cosby adopted when he wanted to have a ‘romantic, sexual thing’ with a young woman he met somewhere. It was a role he was good at playing.

Often enough, the place where he met them was the Playboy mansion. That’s another notion we need to get our heads around: Cosby was a welcome and frequent guest of Hugh Hefner. The women who have accused Cosby of rape included former Playmates Victoria Valentino, Sarita Butterfield, Charlotte Laws and Michelle Hurd. Another woman, Judy Huth, has said she was also attacked at the Playboy mansion. Hugh Hefner and Bill Cosby; Hef and Cos? Yes, indeed. Old friends, and quite literally, apparently, partners in crime. It now appears likely that Hef learned about the affective properties of Quaaludes, and that he instructed old pal Cosby in their use. Kindly old Hugh Hefner.

So there’s something else that we need to process. Playmates are women who have posed nude in Playboy magazine. That is to say that they are attractive young women whose images have appeared, neatly airbrushed and photoshopped (one presumes), naked, in the pages of a particularly famous men’s magazine. They are also guests at the mansion, welcome anytime, to enjoy the world’s longest running party, hosted by a really old guy in his pajamas.

And here’s the point; the fact that these women consented to have their photos in that magazine does not suggest sexual availability, and should not imply consent to subsequent sexual activity. It is absolutely possible to rape a Bunny. Consent is consent, and a woman who has been drugged is not capable of consent.

Somehow, Hugh Hefner has managed to sell the image of the Playboy mansion as somehow, I don’t know, innocent. A fun place for young women hoping to advance modeling/acting/show biz careers. Sort of a partying job fair. I’m not going to link to it, but check out Weezer’s Beverly Hills video. It does an effective job of selling this notion: ‘ain’t nothin’ goin’ on here but good clean fun.’ We now know that that is not the case. The Playboy mansion is a hunting ground for sexual predators. Elderly sexual predators, apparently. Like Hef, and Cos.

Bill Cosby’s career is over. His reputation is destroyed. Civil suits could wipe out his fortune–I certainly hope so. It’s not likely that he will ever go to jail, more’s the pity, but his actions may result in a bill, currently before Congress, to extend the statute of limitations for rapists. The best we can do now, is learn from his case. Two lessons: rapists can look like and act like Dr. Huxtable, and also, posing for a men’s magazine does not imply consent to sexual intercourse. That will have to be enough.

The West Wing, and politics today

Surfing the internet this morning, I happened upon this article in the Huffington Post. It’s a provocative piece, by Robert Kuttner, arguing that liberals need to become much more radical in their proposals going forward. He identifies several major economic issues that have become part of the political conversation in the Democratic party–the cost of college and student debt, income inequality, low wage jobs, and the loss of career paths; the emergence of part-time ‘gig jobs.’ Kuttner then examines the various proposals that people have been suggesting. He takes a careful look at Hillary Clinton’s recent speech on the economy, which he quite likes, and thinks represents a step forward in our understanding of the economic difficulties faced by American workers. And then he says this:

The budget deadlock and the sequester mechanism, in which both major parties have conspired, makes it impossible to invest the kind of money needed both to modernize outmoded public infrastructure (with a shortfall now estimated at $3.4 trillion) or to finance a green transition.

To remedy the problem of income inequality would require radical reform both of the rules of finance and of our tax code, as well as drastic changes in labor market regulation.

Politicians would have to reform the debt-for-diploma system, not only going forward, as leaders like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have proposed, but also to give a great deal of debt relief to those saddled with existing loans.

Unions would need to regain the effective right to organize and bargain collectively.

This is all as radical as, well… Dwight Eisenhower.

And none of the changes Kuttner proposals even begin to address the biggest issue of them all; the potential spectre of global climate change, and the economic changes that would be necessary effectively to cope with it.

Here’s the thing: I agree with Kuttner right down the line. I think he’s right on every particular. Unfortunately, he’s also right in suggesting that how difficult passing any of this would be. As he says, “the reforms needed to restore (Eisenhower era levels of shared prosperity) are somewhere to the left of Bernie Sanders.” And Sanders is already being dismissed by the Beltway, by the mainstream media commentators, by Democratic strategists and pollsters, as a wild-eyed radical. Frankly, he’s seen as kind of a crazy person. And he’s actually probably quite a bit too conservative.

Lately, my wife and I have been watching re-runs of The West Wing. It was dismissed in its time as a fantasy show for liberals. Stuck with George W. Bush in the actual White House, we got to spend an hour once a week imagining a better President. Jedediah Bartlett was a Nobel Prize winning economist, unapologetically liberal, though, of course, flawed as all humans are flawed; in his case, by MS, and also by a bit of a temper, and a kind of pompous windbaggery that drove his staffers nuts. I liked the show; I’m not blind to its flaws.

But this time through, binge-watching all those great episodes with my wife, I’ve been struck by the actual issues that the show dealt with. After all, the heart of the show were all these impassioned conversations about public policy by smart, policy and political wonks, Josh and Toby and Donna and CJ, as they walked around the halls of the West Wing. The show’s been off the air for ten years; I would expect that it would deal with a lot of issues that aren’t actually issues anymore. What’s fascinating is how many of the issues the show deals with are still with us today.

They spend a lot of time, for example, talking about the Iran problem; Bartlett’s always trying to curb Iran’s attempts to build nuclear weapons. One whole episode was about an effort by Leo, acting as Bartlett’s emissary, to normalize relations with Cuba. Climate change gets mentioned, but only a couple of times, in passing. Republicans are forever talking about tax cuts, which Bartlett has to consistently bat back. Economics in the show are sort of weird; Bartlett is never a particularly popular President, but we’re told that the economy is humming along, with five and a half (or seven, or nine, depending) million new high paying private sector jobs. Plus a balanced budget, plus low inflation? And an approval rating in the 40s? It’s like they had to have him be good at economics (he’s a Nobel laureate), but unpopular (conflict!), and sort of hoped we wouldn’t notice; Presidents with humming economies are really really popular.

Gay marriage gets mentioned a lot, but always as a kind of pie-in-the-sky thing that only the most wildly liberal politicians ever even mention. Barlett’s (quietly) in favor, but can’t say so publicly. Too preposterous a pipe-dream to ever become reality. But raising the minimum wage is not actually a big deal; Barlett negotiates a minimum wage hike with Arnie Vinick (the Republican Presidential candidate, played superbly by Alan Alda) and it passes without fuss.

Now, I’m not saying that The West Wing was a particularly prescient show, and oh, if we’d only listened! or anything like that. I think that Aaron Sorkin and (later) John Wells reflected the big political issues of their day, and the mainstream thinking on those issues. They tried to position Bartlett in perhaps surprising and provocative ways in relation to those issues, but those were the issues. And I look at Obama’s second term, ten years after Bartlett ‘left office,’ and it’s interesting. We have an Iran deal. We have normalized relations with Cuba. We don’t have a balanced budget, but the world-wide financial crisis of 2007-8 came after the show left the air. (It would have been interesting to see what Bartlett would have done about it. I assume he was a Keynesian (he was a macroeconomist; they’re all Keynesians); probably he would have rejected austerity). But John Wells was show-running for seasons 5-7, the last three seasons, and Wells was clearly less interested in economics than Sorkin was. The whole last season was about the campaign to replace Bartlett, Matt Santos v. Arnie Vinick, and it would have been nice if Santos had ever attacked Vinick’s tax cuts on substance, not because Vinick’s a Republican and we’re rooting for the Democrat to win, but because Vinick’s tax cuts are bad economics.

Whatever. Here’s my larger point: there are issues that were raised on The West Wing that have since been resolved, mostly, of course, because that show was ten years ago and the world moves forward. Liberals favor change; conservatives oppose it; that’s the difference between the two philosophies. Both are necessary. But right now, voters are angry, because they can see how our country’s current economic successes aren’t benefitting ordinary Americans. Economic inequality should be the key issue in this campaign, and it’s starting to happen on the left. (The Right’s all obsessed with nonsense issues, like border security and cutting rich guys’ taxes).

But. But. If we don’t talk about issues, even far-out, will-never-happen-in-my-lifetime issues (like marriage equality), then people won’t think about them, and they’ll never come to pass. The only way to affect change is to start talking about affecting change. That’s why Bernie Sanders is so valuable in this race. He’s not going to win, and there are issues where I think he’s dead wrong. But he’s talking about economic issues that need to be talked about. He’s willing to position himself as a radical, even though actually he’s not radical enough.

Jed Bartlett, of course, never existed. But that TV show was part of the political conversation. If what’s replaced it is another TV show (Veep, say, or House of Cards), well, those are both terrific shows, but not much interested in policy. But there remain fora where conversations about policy can happen. And we need to speak up.

Movies best seen with other people

For the last few days, I’ve been watching, in bits and pieces, the Rocky Horror Picture Show. There’s a reason I didn’t just sit down and watch the whole thing from beginning to end; it’s terrible. It’s astonishing, how bad it is. Tim Curry’s performance isn’t even all that great; his initial entrance, singing ‘I’m a sweet transvestite’ is extraordinary, but he spends most of the rest of the film flouncing around throwing hissy fits. (His reading of the line ‘Oh, Rocky!’ is pretty great too, I admit.) The story is completely incoherent, the choreography is beyond execrable, both in conception and (OMG) execution. There are some catchy songs. That’s about it.

But here’s the thing, the first time I saw it (winter of ’78), it was at the old Blue Mouse Theater in Salt Lake, a midnight show. And I absolutely loved it. Most of the audience was in costume, and there was an entire meta-theatrical/cinematic ritual at play; people shouting things at the screen, with rice throwing, squirt guns, newspapers to hold over your head. I went in the attitude of pith-helmeted anthropologist, and I had a ball. And so did everyone else in the theater that night, as far as I could tell.

It got me wondering if there were other films like this, films that are best seen with a crowd of people, shared experience films. I suppose another word for them is ‘cult films,’ but that phrase doesn’t quite capture the experience I’m describing. I don’t mean bad films, I mean films that are particularly enjoyable in some kind of group setting. To extend that thought a bit, can we say that certain films are enjoyable precisely because they affirm group identity. They’re insider films, beloved precisely, perhaps, because in some way they are incomprehensible to people not in the group.

Family films fit this category, for example. My wife and her family are all particularly fond of the old Danny Kaye classic, The Court Jester. And with good reason; it’s a terrifically funny film, superbly acted, a delicious parody of Hollywood swashbuckling action/adventure. When we watch it as a family, we repeat lines, we laugh together, we repeat favorite sequences. We can riff off the phrase ‘the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true,’ ad infinitum. Our family does the same for Galaxy Quest; another tremendously entertaining comedy that we enjoy together.  And whenever we see an actor who was in that film–especially the otherwise anonymous folks who played Thurmians, we all go ‘hey, it’s a Thurmian!’ Cross to bear for those actors, but hey, that’s the gig.

It’s not a movie, but a TV series, but the fourteen iconic episodes of Firefly have that in-group vibe. Of course, years after that show was cancelled (for lack of ratings), it’s a Comic-con staple. But don’t you know people who can quote it endlessly? I do. And am one.

Get a bunch of theatre people together at a party, and it’s not unusual for someone to haul out Waiting for Guffman. A funny, inside jokey kind of film, particularly suited for anyone who has done community theatre.

What are some other group identity films? I’d love to hear your faves.

 

The Iran deal: way better than you’ve been led to think

We got a deal with Iran. Iran wanted something; an end to the economic sanctions that were crippling trade and holding back their economy. The West wanted something too; for Iran to stop trying to build nuclear weapons. My wife and I have been watching re-runs of The West Wing; Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear program were an issue President Bartlett dealt with repeatedly, on a show that’s been off the air for ten years. He was a fictional President; now the real one has announced a deal. And it’s terrific.

Meanwhile, the Republican party has found an issue more unifying even than Obamacare. Every single one of the 67 (est.) announced Republican candidates for President has denounced the deal. 47 Republican senators wrote an insultingly condescending letter to the Iranian foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif (a guy with multiple advanced degrees in Foreign Relations from various American universities) explaining the American system of government and, oh, adding ‘we’re not going to ratify any deal you make, so don’t bother negotiating one.’ And their views were tepid compared to those of Bibi Netanyahu, who essentially staked his entire political career on his opposition to it. And who got invited to the US to explain his objections to our Congress. Massively inappropriate, to be sure, but the Right was desperate.

So this week the deal got signed. The negotiations worked. Iran agreed to conditions they had previously rejected. Of course, this is Iran, super-sneaky, terror-sponsoring, Islamic-fanatic, utterly untrustworthy Iran. So newspapers across the country, searching for that ever desirable middle-ground, are calling it ‘deeply flawed,’ in terms that make it clear that, in their view, it’s a lousy deal, but probably the best we could come up with, all things considered.

You want to know who thinks it’s a terrific deal, much better than you’ve been reading? Actual experts in nuclear proliferation.

Here’s Aaron Stein, a nuclear non-proliferation expert at the Royal United Services Institute. (The entire interview with Stein is here.)

It’s a very good nonproliferation deal. If you want it to focus on the problems with Iran running around in Iraq or Syria, this deal is not for you. If you are focused on the nuclear issue specifically, it’s a very good deal. It makes the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear weapon in the next 25 years extremely remote. It would require a Herculean effort of subterfuge and clandestine activity.

It’s important that it puts inspections in place. Inspections are not always designed to catch you red-handed but rather to elicit a response about what it is that you are up to. The threshold for pain is so high that you don’t want to break the rules, and I think this puts that in place while also making it extremely difficult to cheat.

It’s certainly true that the deal allows all economic sanctions against Iran to be lifted. That was what Iran wanted, and it’s in our best interests too, to allow Iran to engage with other nations, including opening diplomatic relations, eventually, with the US. As Klein puts it: “the policy change we wanted was to put limits on Iran’s nuclear program in perpetuity. We got that.” It’s certainly true Iran is currently holding four American citizens, and that we would like them released. But that becomes easier, not harder, now. This negotiation was about one issue, and only one issue. But diplomatic channels now exist to resolve other differences.

Okay, so that’s one guy. What about other nuclear proliferation experts? Well, 30 of them published a letter praising the deal, calling it a “vitally important step forward.” One of the favorite opposition talking points had been that the deal did not call for international inspections; in fact, such inspections are the centerpiece of the deal. And it concluded that “the agreement reduces the likelihood of destabilizing nuclear weapons competition in the Middle East, and strengthens global efforts to prevent proliferation.”

Want some more? How about the non-partisan “The Iran Project,” a group of former analysts and diplomats who have been skeptical about previous diplomatic efforts. After reading the details of this deal, they enthusiastically endorsed it, and called upon Congress to “take no action that would impede further progress.”

You want another opinion? How about Jeffrey Lewis? Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, with a regular column in Foreign Policy? He’s been a skeptic all along; thought the process was flawed, and doubted Iran would agree to a sufficiently robust inspection regime. But he stayed up all night to read the details when it was released on the internet, and he declares himself pleasantly surprised by it: gave it an A. Can Iran be trusted? Here’s his response:

What you want is to feel like the administration has maxed out what they could have reasonably hoped to achieve. You can’t know that [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] will be deterred. But I don’t know that there’s any way to make him more deterred than this.

As President Obama put it in his press conference yesterday (I’m paraphrasing here), we had two choices. One was to negotiate an end to sanctions (which Iran wanted) and an end to their nuclear program (which we wanted). The second was to unilaterally invade or attack Iran. Without necessarily always saying so, the idea of invading Iran was in the subtext of most neo-conservative criticism of the administration’s efforts. The magazine National Review has been particularly rabid in their insistence on military action.

And they’re wrong. They’ve always been wrong. The United States of America can’t just invade other countries and impose our will. It doesn’t work, and it’s also fantastically immoral. Instead, the Obama administration engaged with Iran diplomatically. The deal we got is terrific. It’s not ‘deeply flawed,’ and anyone who says it is doesn’t know what they’re talking about. It’s first-rate, excellent. It’s a terrific deal. Well done, Secretary Kerry. Well done, diplomatic corps. Well done, Mr. President.

Illegal immigration

A friend of mine sent me a link to some site called The Revolution, called What if Illegals Left. It’s sort of gone viral on social media and certain conservative sites. I’m not going to link to it here; don’t have much interest in driving traffic their way. I will quote a bit of it, though.

In California, if 3.5 million illegal aliens moved back to Mexico, it would leave an extra $10.2 billion to spend on overloaded school systems, bankrupt hospitals and overrun prisons. It would leave highways cleaner, safer and less congested. Everyone could understand one another as English became the dominant language again.

In Colorado, 500,000 illegal migrants, plus their 300,000 kids and grandchilds would move back “home,” mostly to Mexico. That would save Colorado an estimated $2 billion (other experts say $7 billion) annually in taxes that pay for schooling, medical, social-services and incarceration costs. It means 12,000 gang members would vanish out of Denver alone.

Colorado would save more than $20 million in prison costs, and the terror that those 7,300 alien criminals set upon local citizens. Denver Officer Don Young and hundreds of Colorado victims would not have suffered death, accidents, rapes and other crimes by illegals.

Denver Public Schools would not suffer a 67% dropout/flunk rate because of thousands of illegal alien students speaking 41 different languages. At least 200,000 vehicles would vanish from our gridlocked cities in Colorado. Denver’s 4% unemployment rate would vanish as our working poor would gain jobs at a living wage.

I’m not going to quote any more; honestly, I feel like I need to take a shower. This entire viral post is nothing more than ridiculous nativist nonsense.  None of it’s true, and none of it contributes helpfully to the debate. May I also urge you to not to post anything disagreeing with it on social media. I’m about to do just that, and I’m already dreading the response. A friend of mine did, and 4000 replies later had to shut it down. The anti-illegal radicals are not reasonable people. They’re conspiracy theorists, basically. And you can’t argue with conspiracy theorists.

And don’t be misled by these ridiculous ‘statistics.’ It doesn’t take much fact checking to realize how phony these numbers actually are. Denver Public Schools don’t have a 67% drop-out rate, for example. It’s closer to 23 percent, for graduation within 4 years of completing eighth grade. But the actual drop-out/flunk rate drops to less than 3% if you count students who finish their degrees a year after their graduating class finishes. And Hispanic students do just fine; track about the same as Caucasian students, a few points behind, which vanishes if you project the numbers out a year.

In fact, every econometric study of the issue of immigration has concluded that Hispanic immigration, legal and illegal, has been a net positive for the US economy. Expel ‘illegals,’ for example, and say goodbye to 2 million entrepreneurs. Illegal immigrants have a much lower crime rate than any other category of Americans, and illegal immigrants pay taxes, earn wages, spend money, all of which boost the US economy. Those are the facts, and they are not in dispute.

Plus, honestly, I have no idea why illegal immigration is an issue in this campaign season. Illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle. In part, this is because the economy of Mexico has been growing. In part, it’s because the US has started issuing more green cards, around a million a year. As for the ‘we need to close the border argument,’ it’s difficult to see how much more could be done. The Obama administration spends 18 billion on border control, more than it spends on any other federal law enforcement agency.

In other words, when people in bordering countries are desperate enough economically that they decide to come over to the US, they first apply to do it legally, through a green card. If they lose that lottery (and many do, of course; it’s basically a matter of luck), some risk their lives to come over illegally. Once here, they are far more likely to start a business and hire other people than any other American ethnicity. They commit fewer crimes than most people. They can’t collect ADC, food stamps, unemployment, social security, the EIC, Medicaid, or most other social services. They pay taxes, and do not consume tax dollars. And their numbers are dwindling.

And I’d do it. So would you. If I were desperate to feed my family, if I couldn’t find any gainful employment where I lived, and if a fantastically wealthy country was close by, to my north, I wouldn’t care about immigration laws. The moral thing to do isn’t to obey some persnicketty rule, it’s to feed your kids. I’d Jean ValJean it. So would you. Be honest with yourself, and you know that’s true.

So yes, I can totally see why stopping illegal immigration needs to be a major national priority, or an issue in a national election campaign. Not.

 

Why Donald Trump’s candidacy is good for America

It’s July, 2015. The first primaries won’t happen for six months; the first debates begin next month. Businessman Donald Trump is either in first, second or third place among Republican candidates in the latest polls. I think this is great. I hope this trend continues. Donald Trump’s candidacy is good for America.

Here’s why. The American political process is, and should be, funny. It takes forever. In the early stages, it disproportionately focuses on two small states that couldn’t be less representative of the American populace, and if four guys careening around Iowa pandering to voters is funny, 22 is even funnier. Our election cycle gives candidates ample opportunity to say and do ridiculous things. This is all to the good. The President of the United States is a very important job, and it does, absolutely, matter who wins. But in the meantime, let them entertain us! Laughter’s good for the soul. And there’s no one more entertainingly foolish than The Donald.

And the ranks of first-rate political satirists has been a bit thinned of late. Jon Stewart is retiring in three weeks. David Letterman has already retired. Jimmy Fallon seems more interested in having celebrities do impressions of other celebrities than in scathing social commentary–not that that’s a bad thing, of course. Stephen Colbert has vanished into the wilderness, taking his character with him, though I suspect that his return will dazzle.

But Trump is something special to these guys. Stewart has expressed regrets over his (he now thinks) pre-mature retirement. David Letterman actually showed up at an event with Steve Martin and Martin Short, Trump-oriented Top Ten list in hand.

Plus, best of all, Donald Trump has helped inspire the return of Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County. That’s right; after twenty five years, we’re getting more Bloom County; Opus the Penguin, Milo, Oliver Wendell Jones, Steve Dallas, and best of all, Bill the Cat. Who will be the Trump stand-in.

And I haven’t even mentioned the #trumpyourcat instagram phenomenon, wherein people give their cats Donald Trump hairdos.

And in a serious vein, Donald Trump’s candidacy is also revelatory with respect to the Republican electorate. I mean, he announced his candidacy (before a heavily papered house), by stating categorically, as though it was one of those things that everyone knows and just doesn’t want to say aloud, that Mexican immigrants were pretty much all of them rapists. When that led to absolutely justified howls of outrage, Trump doubled down. He does that. He doesn’t back down, he doesn’t apologize. He says ludicrous and offensive things, and then he insists that what he said was simply the unvarnished truth, and he won’t walk it back.

And then his poll numbers go up.

Now, I don’t want to fall into the ‘all conservatives are racists’ trap. For one thing, I know a lot of conservatives, and they are not, for the most part, racists. Plus ‘racist’ is a nasty thing to call someone. I will say that Trump’s recent success does indicate that a substantial part of the Republican electorate is clueless and uninformed about the realities of immigration, legal and illegal, in this country. And that maybe some inchoate, unacknowledged, more-felt-than-articulated racial or cultural prejudice may also be at play.

Also, the Trumpites seem clueless and uninformed about a whole range of important policies. Take, for example, Trump’s ‘secret plan’ for dealing with Isis. He hasn’t told anyone what that ‘secret plan’ might entail. Just that it’s going to be ‘beautiful.’ And his poll numbers keep climbing. Which suggests, again, that the problem with Isis is just a matter of will, that all we have to do is insist strongly enough that Isis go away, and they will. And that feckless clown Obama (who is probably mostly Moslem anyway, and may well be from Kenya) just doesn’t want Isis to go away badly enough. In other words, the notion that a secret-but-easily-implemented plan to get rid of Isis might actually succeed ‘beautifully’ suggests, again, an electorate stunningly clueless and ill informed. At least in this sense: a substantial number of people, asked by pollsters who they favor for the Presidency, are able to bring themselves to say ‘Trump.’

Trump seems to think that the Presidency is about making deals. He called the recent Iran deal ‘terrible,’ saying ‘we gave them billions of dollars.’ In fact, ‘giving them billions of dollars’ has nothing to do with the Iran deal, unless you consider a gradual easing of sanctions some kind of giveaway. But that’s Trump. He sees everything through the prism of a business deal. This was a bad deal, because the US didn’t get everything it wanted. Neither did Iran. It’s diplomacy. But that’s not something Trump understands.

Trump’s a celebrity; people have heard of him, which is one reason he stands out from a Republican field that otherwise includes the likes of John Kasich and Carly Fiorina. (People have heard of Jeb Bush, but I don’t sense much excitement there; he’s just ‘the next Bush.’) He’s spectacular ill-informed, but so are most voters on most issues; nothing new there.

But he’s also such a splendid comic stereotype. The bombastic oaf. The comically vain womanizer. He’s a character Moliere would have had a ball with. We have our own Molieres, and they’re licking their chops.

Donald Trump is not going to become President. He polls around 10% in a crowded field, with 58% of the electorate saying they would never vote for him, ever, under any circumstance. That number’s not likely to moderate much. He can’t possibly win. Meanwhile, it’s a hot summer. We need a good laugh. I’m glad he’s running.

Starving Greece, bleeding Wisconsin

I just read on-line that Greece has agreed to terms with the European Union in exchange for another financial bailout. The alternative was something people were calling a ‘Grexit,’ which would mean the expulsion of Greece from the EU and from the Eurodollar currency. I’m not entirely convinced that a Grexit would be such a bad thing; certainly not for Greece, which, if it controlled its own currency, could devalue, as the first step in climbing out of the mess it’s in, following the example of Iceland. Instead, they agreed to more ‘reforms,’ including more austerity.

The Deseret News recently published this op-ed piece about Greece. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t link to a newspaper like the DN for an international story, but the piece was such a fine example of conservative thinking about this issue, I thought I would include it. Greece needs ‘austerity measures’ to ‘shore up its floundering economy.’ Greece has a problem with debt. So, goes the argument, what’s needed is a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes to get their fiscal books in balance. Then, and only then, can their economy grow.

Except it won’t. The EU demands are so draconian that I can’t imagine how a Grexit could possibly be worse. I’ll grant that Greece’s creditors would very much like to be paid. But sometimes you make a bad investment and lose your shirt. Default, devalue, rebuild. That’s what the two closest national models, Iceland and Argentina did. Greece has Argentinian levels of debt, in an economy about the size of Miami’s. Here’s the larger point: austerity doesn’t work. It’s never worked. Debt is bad; austerity is worse. When an economy is mired in recession, what it needs is to have more money circulating, not less. The idea that austerity spending will ‘shore up Greece’s floundering economy’ is the equivalent of saying that bleeding patients will help them get over their pneumonia.

Second case study: Wisconsin. Their governor, Scott Walker, just announced his candidacy for President of the United States, touting his economic record. My conservative friends were rapturous. He’d reduced a two billion dollar state deficit! They’re now nearly a billion dollars in surplus! What a dynamo!

In fact, Wisconsin’s economic record is not doing at all well under Walker. Job creation lags well behind the national average, and well behind his neighboring states. Their deficit was reduced due to increased tax receipts, entirely dependent on the national economic recovery. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a private/public partnership that Walker counts as one of his administration’s finest creations, has had a dismal record, and is hemorrhaging staff. Wisconsin had a 1.5% growth in private sector jobs in 2014, lagging well behind the national average. But that’s also the state’s best year since Walker became governor.

The non-partisan publication The Hill published a scathing review of Walker’s performance, especially in comparison to Minnesota’s Mark Dayton’s performance. Essentially, Dayton pursued a number of policies–an increase in the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid, a tax hike for the wealthy–that had the effect of putting more money in the hands of poor people and the middle class. Walker, on the other hand, cut all spending intended for poor people, refused to increase the minimum wage, and tried to destroy public sector unions. The results couldn’t be clearer; Wisconsin continues to struggle; Minnesota is thriving.

That’s the bottom line. Austerity doesn’t work. Wealth doesn’t trickle down. The way to revive an economy is to put more money in the hands of people who will spend it–increasing demand–and not to put more money in the hands of people who will invest it. Greece is on the wrong track. So is Wisconsin. Minnesota, on the other hand, is doing just fine. Scott Walker is running for President. Let’s not let him win.

A doctrine Mormons probably still believe in, but we never talk about

You’re a Mormon, right? What’s your tribal affiliation, your lineage? Ephraim, probably, right? It was on your patriarchal blessing? Ephraim?  Me? It’s not on mine. Though I’m probably just Ephraim too.

I served my mission in Norway, and spent most of it way up north. For much of my time there, I was the northernmost missionary in the world, because in our apartment, my bed was north of my companion’s. We were in Tromsó Norway, an island city about the same latitude north as the northernmost tip of Alaska. The gulf stream warms the west coast of Norway, making life there, with cities and seaports and such, plausible. Still, it got cold. We kept our shampoo in the fridge so it wouldn’t freeze. We were north. And I loved it; loved the Northern Lights, loved the northern dialect, loved the one night we had two meters of snowfall.

Inland from Tromsó, which is to say, away from the warming gulf stream, it’s essentially tundra; too horrifically cold really to support human life. Which means, of course, that human beings live there; thrive in that climate, in fact. The people who live up there are the Sami people, the northernmost indigenous people of Europe. You may know them as Lapplanders. They follow the reindeer herds on their snowmobiles, though really their main profession is fishing. I knew some Sami on my mission, and found their culture fascinating.

I had a companion, though, who found the Sami fascinating for an entirely other reason. He thought for sure they were the lost ten tribes. Makes sense, right? The lost ten tribes of Israel, went “north” after the Assyrians deported and scattered them. Okay, 2700 years ago; still, they went somewhere, and occasionally someone will give a talk about it, how they’re still a discrete people, with prophets and scriptures and a culture. In a cave maybe, under the earth’s surface. OR (and this was the possibility that got my companion all fired up) maybe they were an indigenous culture. Up north. Living by themselves. Speaking their own language, following their own customs.

As it happened, our little Tromsó congregation had a Sami member, a young woman in the nursing program at the U of Tromsó (Go Polar Bears!). She hadn’t been a member for very long, and my companion was all on fire for her to get her patriarchal blessing. He was sure her lineage was going to be ‘Naphtali’ or something.  Problem was, ‘getting a patriarchal blessing’ wasn’t easy. The only patriarch in Norway lived in Oslo, a bajillion miles away. She couldn’t afford to fly there, and there wasn’t a bus or train to Tromsó (there is now, but not back then). Sometimes, though, the patriarch would travel north to the city of Trondheim, which had a large and active branch. Northern members could arrange to meet him there. Getting from Tromsó to Trondheim required a two day boat trip, but my companion kept pestering our Sami member, telling her how great a patriarchal blessing was and how she really wouldn’t regret taking a week off work to get one. Finally he convinced her. She took the boat south, and came back to us all enthused. She’d loved her patriarchal blessing. The whole experience was totally worth it. It was a great spiritual blessing for her. She was so grateful.

What tribe was she from, asked my companion, finally. ‘Ephraim,’ she said. Why did he ask? He was crestfallen. She was Ephraim. Not, like, Dan or Asher or. . .  Issachar. Just . . .  Ephraim. Like everyone else.

When we Mormons are baptized into the Church, we’re also adopted into one of the tribes of Israel. That then becomes our lineage, and we become heirs to all the blessings promised to Abraham. So I was told, and so I was taught. But this is a doctrine we essentially never talk about. I suppose there’s the odd Sunday School lesson on the covenant of Abraham that gets into it a bit. But it’s essentially never mentioned from the pulpit. Certainly not in General Conference.

I think we don’t talk about it because it’s sort of a weirdly tribal doctrine anyway, feels anachronistic, has no real impact in our lives. And is maybe sort of borderline racist, or racialist? Doesn’t it feel like God likes some tribes more than others?

More than that, it doesn’t feel true anymore.  I’m not saying it isn’t true, I’m saying it doesn’t feel true. There’s a lot of ‘chosen people’ talk in the Bible, which makes sense. Gods are often worshipped tribally. Yahweh is our God, the God of our tribe, the God that protects us and watches over us and sends us rain allowing for bountiful harvests as long as we obey him. But how much of the Old Testament is about the Children of Israel hedging their bets, offering sacrifices to the Gods (or gods) of other tribal peoples in the region? And that’s a bad thing, and you really really shouldn’t do it, and if you don’t watch out Elijah will ask God, Yahweh, to smite the priests of Baal. Which He will totally do.

That’s not a message we need anymore. I suppose you could say that we worship idols of our own, cars and fancy houses and big bank accounts and stock portfolios and our favorite sports teams. And we shouldn’t and lessons saying so are still apropos. Our needs today, though, are not the needs of a tribal desert people, living hand to mouth, enemies everywhere, desperate to establish an identity, one good drought away from catastrophe. We’re rich. We also have astonishing technological capabilities. The brotherhood of man isn’t just a stirring rhetorical trope; we can instantly see and communicate with people anywhere in the world. We’re drowning in information. We need less tribalism, not more. We need to take care of the poor among us, mostly those in Asia and Africa. It actually makes sense to put everyone in Ephraim; we need to think that way now, as all members of a single race, the human race. Talks about ‘the House of Israel’ or ‘the Abrahamic covenant’ just don’t resonate anymore, nor should they. I’m not saying those are doctrines we should discard. I’m saying those are doctrines we have, de facto, discarded. And I don’t miss them, and think we’re better off without them. Right?

Nearly forty years ago, I got my patriarchal blessing. I loved it. I still reread it from time to time. I still find it inspirational. But it doesn’t mention my lineage. I could get that fixed easily enough, but I’ve never bothered, because I just flat don’t care.  I mean, it’s just Ephraim, right? Like everyone else’s. We’re all brothers and sisters, in other words. Yay for that.

 

The Death Penalty

Let’s talk about death.

Amidst all the hoorah about marriage equality and saving Obamacare, SCOTUS had another major decision, the inelegantly titled Glossip v. Gross. In that case, the death penalty survived a challenge based on the unreliability of the one of the drugs, midazolam, used to execute people. There have been some horrific botched executions recently, and that problem was compounded by the fact that death penalty drugs have become increasingly difficult to obtain. The companies who make them don’t want to support death anymore. So, did executions using midazolam constitute cruel and unusual punishment? The court answered ‘no.’

The access to drugs problem remains. In fact, that’s why Nebraska, shockingly, voted to eliminate the death penalty back in May. In fact, the Nebraska legislature passed the law getting rid of the death penalty by a veto-proof margin. Had to, as their governor threatened to veto it.

Most advanced nations on earth have eliminated the death penalty. 140 countries have abolished the death penalty, The countries that still have the death penalty is essentially a list of countries you don’t want to live in: Libya, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan. And the USA.

So what do we think about the death penalty? As a civilized people, what do we think? It’s not an easy answer. Does the death penalty have a deterrent effect? That’s a hot topic in the criminology academic literature, and most peer reviewed studies have concluded that no deterrent effect exists. 88% of all criminologists believe that the death penalty does not deter violent crime. But that also means that 12% do believe in deterrence, and some recent studies have concluded that deterrence exists.

The well-known (and famously liberal) legal scholar Cass Sunstein, in an oft-cited 2006 study, made this compelling suggestion:

Many people believe that the death penalty should be abolished even if, as recent evidence seems to suggest, it has a significant deterrent effect. But if such an effect can be established, capital punishment requires a life-life tradeoff, and a serious commitment to the sanctity of human life may well compel, rather than forbid, that form of punishment. The familiar problems with capital punishment–potential error, irreversibility, arbitrariness, and racial skew–do not require abolition because the realm of homicide suffers from those same problems in even more acute form. Moral objections to the death penalty frequently depend on a sharp distinction between acts and omissions, but that distinction is misleading in this context because government is a special kind of moral agent. The widespread failure to appreciate the life-life tradeoffs potentially involved in capital punishment may depend in part on cognitive processes that fail to treat “statistical lives” with the seriousness that they deserve. The objection to the act/omission distinction, as applied to government, has implications for many questions in civil and criminal law.

If, in other words, capital punishment deters killer from killing, then opposing the death penalty requires that we trade a life for a life; that we may be privileging the life of someone predisposed towards violence over the life of his future victims. If it can be proved that the threat of the death penalty is sufficient incentive for a killer to not kill, then governments that refuse to administer the death penalty may committing a very serious sin of omission.

That’s pretty abstract; let me make it more concrete. In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik killed eight people with a bomb in Oslo, then went to a summer camp on Utóya, an island in the Oslofjord, and murdered 69 others. Children. Breivik was, and is, an ideological extremist. He’s Islamaphobic, anti-Zionist, and ruthlessly anti-feminist. He murdered 77 people. He’s not remotely repentant. He was tried in 2012, found guilty, and given the maximum sentence possible in Norwegian law, 21 years in preventative detention, 10 of which are to include incarceration.

That might strike you as being a fairly mild sentence for a ruthless mass murderer. I wouldn’t disagree with you. It strikes me as pretty typically Norwegian. The responses, from King Harald, from Jens Stoltenberg, the Prime Minister, from the opposition parties, was ‘this is not going to change us. This is not going to change our commitment to democratic or humanist values.’ One girl, who was at the camp while Breivik was rampaging through it and who saw her friends murdered, said, in a widely quoted statement “if one man could show so much hate, think how much love we could show, standing together.”

So. Inspiring? Or dangerously naive? One response to Norway’s response might well be: ‘Typical weenie liberals,’ right? And let’s suppose that some other ideological extremist found Breivik’s actions as heroic, not horrific. Let’s suppose there was a copycat wannabe. Would that person be deterred by the astonishing sentence Breivik received? If there were more killings, would Norway’s continuing commitment to opposing the death penalty also mean that Norway would have blood on its hands? Does Sunstein have this right?

In fact, there haven’t been copycat killings. Not yet, at least. But let’s take Sunstein’s argument seriously for a moment. Certainly, the death penalty does deter any further crimes that the guy we just executed might have possibly committed in future. It also deters any possible good the guy might have done, so there’s that. But can we as a society take the chance that deterrence works? Wouldn’t that be irresponsible of us?

Here’s the thing: most of the arguments I’ve heard for the death penalty strike me as atavistic. Whenever there’s a mass shooting–Charleston’s the most recent big one–the reaction of a lot of people, not just in media but in everyday conversations, is ‘fry the bastard.’ Break out Old Sparky; electrocute him. Shoot him. Hang him from the highest tree. We like that. We love Hollywood revenge fantasies. We love the idea of vengeance. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. All that.

Set that aside. That’s our lizard-brain talking. We do actually know better, especially those of us who profess Christianity. And let’s also leave off all the other objections to the death penalty–racial bias, inadequate representation, the unreliability of witness testimony, DNA proof of innocence claims. Let’s leave all that out of the equation. Let’s confine ourselves to Sunstein’s argument, and let’s assume, as he does, that deterrence is a real-world possibility.

Should we execute murderers? Should we do it to save the potential lives of their potential, eventual victims?

I spent the afternoon going back and forth on this. Finally, I concluded: No. We should not. Justice remains an essential societal value. But the death penalty does not serve the cause of justice, because it leaves off the single most important element in criminal justice, the possibility of redemption. We can ask juries to determine what happened, who did what, who is responsible. We cannot, and must not ever ask juries to determine the worth or value of any human soul. I say, let’s put ourselves on the same moral plane as Norway, not Libya. Let’s say no to death.