Fox News vs. MSNBC

Okay, so you’re at a family function, and you find yourself alone in a corner with your Tea Party-supporting Uncle Bob. And Aunt Lydia’s home-made root beer has had that one week extra to really ferment.  And you’re a progressive/liberal/commie, and Uncle Bob is at his most obstreperous.  (I’m aware that a lot of you who read this aren’t actually progressive/liberal/commies, but go with me here.)  And so you suggest that his opinions aren’t actually factually based, because he watches Fox (or Faux) News.  And he says, ‘oh, and the news you get from MSNBC isn’t biased?’

And there’s the equivalency.  Fox News vs. MSNBC.  Maybe Fox News does lean right, but the entire mainstream (or ‘lamestream’) media is biased too.  On Fox, we conservatives are getting the straight scoop, the real skinny, the actual news divorced from leftist ideology.  Fox is a corrective, sure, but that doesn’t mean Fox isn’t ‘fair and balanced.’  Fox also clearly distinguishes between ‘straight news’ and ‘opinion,’ and has some first-rate journalists doing the straight news bits.  But MSNBC is basically nothing but opinion, with hosted opinion-based shows back to back to back.  Except for weekends, where MSNBC does reality shows set in prisons.

I don’t watch Fox News much, but I do watch it some.  Let me start off by saying this: in general, Fox News commentators are better at their jobs than many MSNBC hosts are.  I don’t mean truer, or more factually based, or more reasonable.  But. . .  let me explain.

When I was in grad school, I had a job in radio. My station, WFIU, was a PBS station, and so we carried Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and other PBS programming, as well as, of course, such public radio fave-raves as Car Talk and Garrison Keillor.  I also had a show of my own; a classical music call-in game show called Ether Game.  I hosted it every Tuesday night, mostly written by staff (I had staff!), but occasionally by me.  And on Saturday mornings, I had a sports talk show, co-hosted by a friend and fellow sports nut.

That sports talk show was the single most difficult thing I have ever done.  We were just establishing ourselves, and didn’t have a lot of callers at first.  A lot of sports talk radio is dreadful; shouty and angry and judgy.  I wanted something different, a sports talk show focused on evidence and expertise.  I interviewed an Olympic swimmer about her practice routine, for example.  A gymnast about Title IX.  A wide receiver coach about how to train wide receivers.  That kind of thing.  I love sports, know sports, can talk about sports with, I think, some knowledge and insight.  But my gosh it was difficult.

Try it.  Try talking non-stop for ten minutes.  On any subject on earth, on something you perhaps know a lot about.  You have to talk with some fluency, and you can’t repeat yourself, and you have to say something engaging and interesting to listeners.  I knew and liked the subject matter, I knew a lot about it, I’m a reasonably articulate guy, I think, and I researched; OMG did I research.  It’s still incredibly difficult.  To be good at talk radio requires a very specific skill set that very few people on earth have.

I loathe Rush Limbaugh’s politics, for example, but I admire his talent immensely.  He’s incredibly good at what he does.  Howard Stern is amazing on radio, not that I share his obsessions and foibles, but he’s extremely good at what he does.  Dave Ramsey’s exceptionally gifted.  Garrison Keillor is a frickin’ genius.

Well, talk radio tends to be dominated by conservatives.  I’m not sure why, but it does seem to be true. And most Fox News hosts came from radio, and brought that skill set with them.  I think Sean Hannity is one of the most annoying people on earth, but he’s a talented radio guy, and he’s brought his own articulate presence to Fox.  Bill O’Reilly’s a radio guy.  Glen Beck was, and is.  If you watch Megyn Kelly’s show, you can see how much she struggles with the format. She can be a sharp interviewer, and she’s good at TV, but she can’t just riff, the way O’Reilly and Hannity can.  She doesn’t have that radio background.

Far and away the best show on MSNBC is Rachel Maddow’s show; not surprising, given her background in (liberal) talk radio.  If you watch Rachel regularly, you’ll notice a habit she has.  She repeats herself a lot.  She’ll say something like, ‘the strongest allegations about Chris Christie, the biggest arguments against him, the people making the toughest case against him. . . .’  That’s a radio trick; people are in their cars, driving, and not necessarily paying close attention, so you repeat yourself a bit, with slight varieties between each repetition, to make sure you’ve captured their full attention. It enables her to make a more nuanced argument, and to base it in history of some kind.  That’s her strength.  And if you watch her on election nights, you realize how good she is at off-the-cuff improvisation.

So Fox News is, in many respects, just better at TV broadcasting than MSNBC is.  On Fox News, the messaging is tight, clear, punchy.  On MSNBC, it feels more self-indulgent.  Lawrence O’Donnell isn’t a very good TV show host–nowhere near as good as Rachel–because he goes off on idiosyncratic tangents. (And sometimes has to apologize later). Now, when there’s a big major story breaking, MSNBC is excellent, because they simply become an extension of the work being done by the professionals at NBC News.  Fox doesn’t have as many real journalists at their disposal; they’re not great at breaking news.  MSNBC is improving; Steve Kornacki’s terrific, as is Jose Diaz-Balart, as is Melissa Harris-Perry.  But Al Sharpton’s show is painful to watch, as is Chris Matthews’.  And I really dislike Morning Joe, though it’s a popular show. Beats me why.

But–and this is the point I really want to make–there’s no way MSNBC is anywhere near as important to liberals as Fox is to conservatives.  Not even close.  The ratings bear this out; Fox clobbers MSNBC in TV ratings all the time. And that totally doesn’t matter.  Because liberals don’t tend to get their news from TV.  And conservatives do, mostly from Fox.

This is basic demographics.  The median age for Fox News viewers is 65.  Fox News viewers skew heavily old, white and male.  Rachel Maddow actually wins her time slot regularly among the 25-54 age demographic.  Older people are used to getting their news from television.  They’re also used to TV news personalities being authoritative–Cronkite, Rather, David Brinkley.  And Fox News speaks to their fears and concerns.  The national debt is a potent issue for those viewers, because they’re worried about their grandchildren.

(This also explains Megyn Kelly getting her own show.  She’s not much of a journalist, though she is a pretty good interviewer, and has a feisty, confident on-air personality.  But she is an attractive young blonde woman.  Demographics; older white men like pretty blonde women.)

But younger, more liberal voters tend not to watch network television at all, and mostly, when they do watch TV, it’s via the internet.  And satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert speak to their style and approach.  Fox News seems square, earnest in comparison (and the Fox News website is generally considered lame).  Liberals are much more likely to get news from a variety of sources, most of them internet sources: Daily Kos, Salon.com, vox.com, 538.com, Huffpo, Politico.com, etc.  Paul Krugman’s blog is a daily must-read. I agree that conservatives have their pet websites too: Breitbart, National Journal, Heritage, Cato. But I know conservatives who really do watch Fox for hours every day.  I don’t know a soul who could bear to watch that much MSNBC.

So Uncle Bob is right when he says that MSNBC is, in a sense, the liberal equivalent to Fox News.  (Though, I would point out that the second most popular show on MSNBC is hosted by a conservative, Joe Scarborough, something for which Fox has nothing comparable).  But it isn’t true that MSNBC and Fox are really equal.  Fox News is an immensely important part of the conservative movement, and of the Tea Party movement.  MSNBC is . . . just another news source.

Of course, mainstream media are also important, though their influence is diminishing.  CNN can be embarrassingly bad, especially at international news.  And of course, the myth of ‘liberal media bias’ needs to be dispelled once and for all. We all of us, right and left, suffer from confirmation bias, and though I do believe truth exists, it can be frustratingly difficult to discern.  Reading broadly and widely helps.  Watching one network all the time is a waste of time.  We can use news to confirm our prejudices, or we can try to learn something from the media we consume.  We can’t watch or read everything.  But we have, at our fingertips, the greatest source for information the world has ever seen.  Maybe we could use that resource in a way that increases wisdom and understanding.

 

Two big political questions for Mormons

Today, we Utahns enjoyed the edifying spectacle of seeing our last two Attorneys-General hauled off in handcuffs for political corruption.  Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow, who between them were Attorneys-General in Utah for sixteen years, both charged with multiple counts of receiving and soliciting bribes.  Chatting with an old friend from Indiana, he asked the obvious question: what’s going on in Utah?  Why are all your attorneys-general crooks?  And the best answer both of us could come up with is this: Utah’s a one-party state.  With veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, the Republican party rules untroubled by any thought of electoral consequences.  And that lack of voter oversight can lead to, well, corruption.

That’s the first question, and the first attempt at an answer.  Here’s the second question: why do Mormons hate President Obama so much?  A recent gallup poll asked people if they approved or disapproved of this President, but also broke down the results by religion.  Turns out, Mormons hate him more than any other religion.  He got a 18% favorable, 78% unfavorable.  So why do we Mormons hate this President so much?

I’m just going to discount the possibility that it’s because he’s a terrible President and Mormons, with our powers of spiritual discernment, saw it before anyone else did.  Or that we’re all conservatives because only conservatism is compatible with gospel values.  I’m ignoring both those possibilities, because this is my blog and I can say anything I want to on it.  And also because that’s silly.  Neither political party has any kind of monopoly on truth or values or good policies, and no objective look at Obama’s Presidency could possibly fail to notice that he’s had some successes and some failures, like every President ever.  I’m a Mormon, and I think he’s an excellent President.  I have also, on this blog, called for his impeachment.  I think NSA spying on us violates the Constitution, and that drone warfare is an abomination.  I also think Obamacare is a big success story (the evidence for that is pretty well overwhelming), and that he’s been an effective advocate for sensible economic policies. And for the poor, which is my number one issue anyway. So Obama’s a mixed bag.  Add it up, and he’s been a good President. Top-tier.

But conservatives hate him, and Republicans tend to froth at the mouth at how much they hate him, and that’s weird.  Mormons tend to be conservative Republicans, hence his bad poll numbers. Plus, he defeated a Mormon hero, Mitt Romney (an estimable man, I think.)  Plus he’s black.  That’s all gotta be in the mix.  But mostly, it’s because he’s a liberal and Mormons really really aren’t.

Here’s one theory about why Mormons tend to be Republicans.  Mormons disproportionately live in the western states, especially Utah and Idaho.  And those states tend to be very conservative.  Utah and Idaho are very conservative, and have large Mormon populations, but Wyoming and Montana also tend to be very conservative, and don’t have majority Mormon populations.  Western states tend to have large amounts of federally owned land, which is a constant source of friction. We fancy ourselves independent loners, who enjoy wide open spaces.  Rural Americans tend to be more conservative than urban Americans, and Utah is really quite rural.  Except for Salt Lake City itself, which is also Utah’s one enclave of hard-core liberals.  So Mormons are conservatives because Mormons are rural Westerners, who tend to be conservative.  It’s entirely demographics; has nothing to do with doctrine or beliefs.

But I live in Provo, and Provo/Orem is really pretty urban, with two major universities, and lots of suburbs. And Provo/Orem are, like, majorly conservative.  Democrats are outnumbered in my town at least 10-1.  So the ‘independent right-wing rancher’ theory doesn’t entirely hold up either.

We’d like to believe that voters are well-informed and thoughtful and make their decisions based on reason and evidence.  I don’t think that’s all that true for most people. There’s a lot of social science research on this; most people respond viscerally and emotionally to political questions, which they’d otherwise prefer not to think about much.  In Utah, a Republican named ‘McKay’ is going to do very well in most elections, because LDS people have really positive associations with the name ‘McKay’ and a great many voters will just vote the straight Republican ticket anyway.  That name and that party affiliation will generally be enough to win any race that guy enters.  Not caucuses, though, because caucus voters tend to be very well informed and passionate, and of course also really majorly conservative.

So why are Mormons such hard core Republicans?  I think it’s about one issue above all others.  I think it’s because of abortion.

Abortion evokes very powerful emotions for social conservatives, and for Mormons.  The argument that ‘The prophet has spoken on this’ is a winning argument in almost any setting, and there’s no question that the Church has taken a strong stance against elective abortions.  And it’s an emotional issue. One the one side of it are people who believe, with all their hearts, that women absolutely should be the ones to make the most essential medical decisions regarding their bodies.  On the other side of it, you’ve got the ‘baby-killer’ argument. So you can demonize the other side as either ‘anti-women’ or ‘baby murderers.’  Strong stuff.

Of course, it’s a far more complex and nuanced issue than either of those formulations would suggest.  While the Church is certainly strongly ‘pro-life’, it does also say that morally defensible abortions can be performed when the pregnancy places a mother’s life at stake, or when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.  And in those situations, the person who should have ultimate responsibility for deciding whether or not to terminate the pregnancy should be the woman.  That’s one reason that some evangelical Christians protest against the Church at General Conference; we’re soft on abortion, in their view.

And to criminalize abortion would be a catastrophe.  We’ve seen it before; young women so desperate to end an unwanted pregnancy that they’ll go to any extreme, including medically dangerous procedures performed by back-alley charlatans.  The brilliant Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days captures the agonized desolation of a young woman who will go to any extreme to terminate her pregnancy. Historically, women have always known ways to end an unsustainable pregnancy, secrets passed down by midwives and other older women who know the secret.

As a Democrat, I support Bill Clinton’s formulation: abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. I also love this reasoning, from one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace:

The only really coherent position on the abortion issue is one that is both Pro-life and Pro-choice.

Given our best present medical and philosophical understandings of what makes something not just a living organism but a person, there is no way to establish at just what point during gestation a fertilized ovum becomes a human being. This conundrum, together with the basically inarguable soundness of the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about whether something is a human being or not, it is better not to kill it,” appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Life.

At the same time, however, the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about something, I have neither the legal nor the moral right to tell another person what to do about it, especially if that person feels that s/he is not in doubt” is an unassailable part of the Democratic pact we Americans all make with one another, a pact in which each adult citizen gets to be an autonomous moral agent; and this principle appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Choice.

Abortion is, in other words, a highly emotional issue that isn’t simple and isn’t black and white, but which easily be framed in black and white terms. Especially when we’re talking about something as absolute and fundamental as killing babies.  Or denying women basic human rights.

But this isn’t about me being torn.  It’s about why Mormons are Republicans.  And the emotional power of the abortion issue trumps every other consideration.  And as long as the Democratic response to the issue of abortion is ‘it’s a nuanced and complicated question, not a black-and-white one,’ which is perfectly true, we Dems are going to lose a lot of elections in Utah.  For a very long time.

 

 

 

 

 

Suing the President

John Boehner and Barack Obama don’t like each other.  That seems apparent.  I don’t know, of course, how personal this is, or if it’s just political and professional.  I had a colleague at BYU who I just flat out disagreed with pretty much all the time on pretty much every issue our department confronted.  But when we weren’t squabbling in faculty meeting, we got along fine.  Our disagreements were entirely professional. When we were able to talk on neutral subjects–football, say–we got along really well.  At faculty parties, his wife and my wife became pals.  It may well be that President Obama and Speaker Boehner’s disagreements are like that; professional and political.  John Adams said really rude things about Thomas Jefferson, and Jefferson returned the favor.  But when they were both out of office, they re-established their friendship, and their correspondence is one of the glories of American letters. Maybe Obama/Boehner will have the same happy outcome.  But I’m rather inclined to doubt it.

Anyway, for weeks now, Speaker Boehner has been threatening to sue the President.  President Obama’s response has been, basically, ‘bring it.’  The President’s on the stump these days, making what sure seem like off-the-cuff speeches about how much he would love to work with Congress (read ‘the House’) on legislation, but that they don’t seem interested.  The Senate sent over a bi-partisan immigration bill months ago, and it would probably pass the House too, in a straight up-and-down vote.  But in an election year?  Immigration?  It’s a toxic issue for Republicans, who are much more afraid of Tea Party challenges to their right than they are of possible Democratic challengers in the general election.  So Speaker Boehner won’t call for a vote, and that means President Obama gets to make fun of him for it.  It’s all pretty amusing.

But not as slap-stick comical as this lawsuit malarkey.  The guys at the invaluable website vox.com have been all over this, with four separate (and very good) articles about it, looking at it from several angles.  Here’s Ezra Klein on the issue:

Consider what happens if Speaker John Boehner wins  his lawsuit against President Barack Obama: the court will order Obama to implement the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate without further delay. Which, given that Obama only delayed the mandate until 2015 and court cases can take a long time to wind their way through the legal system, might mean the court will order Obama to do something he has already done.

What’s even odder about the suit is that Boehner hates Obamacare’s employer mandate. And the business groups that back Boehner hate Obamacare’s employer mandate. So Boehner is lifting heaven and earth to get the court to demand Obama more rapidly enforce a policy Boehner hates, that Boehner’s allies hate, and that Obama says he’s going to start enforcing in a few months anyway.

It’s as if Pat Riley was suing LeBron James to force him to begin playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers sooner.

Exactly.

Our friends on the Right insist that President Obama’s delay in implementing this so-called ‘employer mandate’ is clearly and obviously unconstitutional.  Funny how they didn’t think so when President Bush unilaterally and without Congressional approval delayed the implementation of Medicare Part B.  George W. Bush did exactly what conservatives accuse Obama of doing; changing the specific requirements of a law. I don’t remember the howls of protest then.

And it’s the kind of thing the Constitution is very vague about.  The Constitution says Congress passes legislation.  The Executive branch executes those laws.  So, we have a law, requiring employers to provide insurance to their employees.  Because of feedback from the business community, President Obama decides to delay implementation of that provision by a year.  So is that a case in which the President is illegally re-writing a law?  Or is it a minor case of tweaking a deadline, in order to better execute the law?  The Constitution doesn’t clarify this point, and shouldn’t, for something that’s so obviously a gray area.  As the courts will certainly rule.

So why is Boehner doing it?  Why is he pursuing a lawsuit that he almost certainly won’t win, to implement a law that he loathes?  Ezra Klein, again over at Vox, thinks it’s an idiotic gambit legally, but quite brilliant politically.

See, conservatives really really really hate Obama.  I mean, frothing at the mouth, spittle emitting hatred.  There’s this thing called the internet; mostly consists of tubes or something, best I can understand it.  Go on Reddit or Facebook or something, and post  ‘boy, I think Obama is a really good President.’  It’s kind of entertaining, to see how angry people get.

So people like Sarah Palin–well, actually, Sarah Palin–have been calling for President Obama’s impeachment, because, I don’t know, Benghazi.  And their latest meme is that he’s lawless.  He’s trampling all over the Constitution!  He’s consciously destroying America!  Or something.  And Boehner, because he wants to keep being Speaker, says all that too.  So when Boehner talks about this ‘lawless criminal’ in the White House, exercising ‘king-like authority,’ he’s just echoing the rhetorical excesses of everyone on the Fox News right.

But the problem is, if in fact Obama is a lawless criminal, acting in a king-like disregard for Constitutional values, well, there’s a perfectly adequate Constitutional remedy for that: impeachment.  But Boehner doesn’t want to pursue impeachment.  First of all, he knows perfectly well that Obama hasn’t done anything impeachable.  Second, he knows how an irresponsible impeachment would backfire politically.  Right now, the President isn’t very popular; impeach him, and watch his numbers climb and his political capital grow.  It’s not even entirely clear that the House can impeach Obama.  Impeachment is a serious step, and Boehner has to know he can count on exactly zero votes from House Democrats on it, and there are enough Republican moderates to make it a very chancy proposition, especially, again, when Obama hasn’t done anything to build a bill of impeachment around.  And, of course, impeach and remove is a complete impossibility; Democrats control the Senate.

Hence, this ridiculous lawsuit.  It gives Boehner the space he needs to keep up the ferocious rhetorical attacks on Obama the Tea Party loves so much, without quite having to go so far as impeachment.  It’s smart-ish politically.  The only cost is that the President gets to keep making fun of him for it.  But that’s the key to Boehner’s speakership; speak loudly, and carry a tiny stick.  He’s certainly the most inept Speaker in US history, but being Speaker right now, is an impossible gig.  He’s really really bad at his job, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone else being better at it.

Of course, the House can always vote to repeal Obamacare again.  That always works. And isn’t that great?  They vote over and over to repeal the ACA, then file a lawsuit seeking to force Obama to . . . implement more quickly the ACA.  What a strange political world we inhabit.

Movie Review: America, Imagine the World Without Her

Dinesh D’Souza’s new documentary, America: Imagine the World Without Her is, let’s admit it, a competently made piece of Tea Party propaganda.  I saw it at a matinee at 10:30 in the morning, and the place was packed.  I was also the youngest person in the audience by twenty years.  Leaving the theater afterwards, I heard audible sobs, saw genuine tears shed, saw people who had clearly been moved by it.  Part of me wanted to make a scene, but I didn’t. Internet trolls are bad enough; a movie troll is nothing to aspire to.

And I admit: it’s pretty well made.  Lots of costumed reenactments–Washington leading troops to battle, Lincoln giving speeches, Frederick Douglass likewise. Lots and lots of sweeping helicopter shots of American landmarks–Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge.  Lots of inspiring country rock patriotic music.  It sets a brisk pace, makes its points with clarity.  Even the ubiquity of D’Souza’s presence as interviewer is intentional and effective.  He’s from India; he’s dark-skinned and he’s conservative, One of Us, so we’re absolved from the charge of racism.

And he has some interesting interviews; gets some pretty prominent lefties to say suitably inflammatory things: Ward Churchill, Alan Dershowitz, Bono.  So it looks, you know, balanced and reasonable.  Fair.  It isn’t.

The stated premise of the film is intriguing; what would the world be like without America?  Would it be a better or a worse place?  Specifically; the movie starts off with a battle scene in which a British sniper kills George Washington.  Well, what if that had happened, what if we Americans had lost the Revolutionary war?  But D’Souza doesn’t pursue that question much, probably because the answer’s pretty mundane.  We don’t know what would have happened, but probably we’d have just ended up more or less like Canada.  Slavery would have ended sooner than it did, and our system of government would be parliamentary but still democratic.  No 2nd Amendment.  We’d be fine, in other words.

What really interests D’Souza, though, is Howard Zinn.  Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States tells our history from the perspective of marginalized people–Native Americans, slaves, poor immigrants, workers.  D’Souza clearly loathes Zinn and everything he stands for, and offers an alternative American history; that of Alexis de Tocqueville.  D’Souza thereby sets up a false dualism; the American narrative is either that of a 60s radical socialist historian, or that of an early 19th century French aristocrat who rode around Ohio and was impressed by this nation of farmer/inventor/entrepreneurs.  And those are our choices.  America is defined by one of those narratives; it’s either/or, Zinn or de Tocqueville.  Ignoring, oh, the work of maybe 20, 000 historians also defining America narratively.

And that’s what we get, this insultingly simplistic rendering of the American story. Zinn says that we robbed Native Americans, practiced genocide.  D’Souza says ‘no, we didn’t murder Native Americans!  They died of disease.  We made treaties!  We were civilized!’  And thereby reduces a complicated history to one that’s more comfortable to us today.  Or slavery; yeah, we practiced slavery.  But so did lots of countries!  Plus, we had white people slaves, people in indentured servitude!  Plus we fought an idealistic war to get rid of it!  So we’re not really to blame for anything.  At all.  America still gets to be good!

Of course, D’Souza has his villains.  Obviously.  Worst of all: Saul Alinsky.  In D’Souza’s unsubtle rendering, Alinsky is essentially a mobster, a commie agitator, a secretive operative intent on destroying America.  And he has two great allies today: Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton.  (Obama’s grandfather knew Alinsky slightly in Hawaii; Hillary wrote her senior thesis on Alinsky.)  See, Alinsky was trying to destroy America!  Because he was a communist!  And now Obama is trying to destroy America! Because he’s a communist, fundamentally hostile to American entrepreneurial capitalism.

That was one of the times I laughed out loud.  I couldn’t help it; it’s just too funny.  A pro-business moderate like Obama (or for heaven’s sake, Ms. Wall Street Hillary Clinton!) being portrayed as a communist!  Corporate profits were around 10 trillion last year; if Obama’s trying to destroy capitalism, he’s really bad at it.

The historical ignorance of this movie, the straw man arguments, the foolish knee-jerk anti-Obama assertions, the astonishing lack of nuance, ultimately it makes for a dispiriting experience.

I wondered how D’Souza would deal with the fact that he’s in jail: that he was arrested for violating campaign finance law.  It’s nicely done.  First, we see him sitting in a jail cell, in handcuffs.  He looks glum, and the voiceover says ‘I made a serious mistake.’  And then he goes on to talk about the IRS “scandal”, where the IRS supposedly targeted Tea Party groups seeking 501 (c) (4) status. See what he did there?  Sleight of hand: he can say ‘hey, I admitted my errors,’  but in the context of Obama persecuting critics of his administration. Like Dinesh? You can read it that way if you like. . .

At one point, the film shows a clip of Michael Moore at an Occupy Wall Street rally.  Earlier, D’Souza makes a big deal of the fact that his previous film, Obama’s America, was the second biggest money-making political documentary ever.  Well, what’s first?  Moore’s Farenheit 9/11.  And Moore’s the one filmmaker more than any other who D’Souza resembles.  They both make propaganda films, polemical films essentially defining the political divide.  They both make films that play to the confirmation bias of hard-core partisans, left and right.  They both make unsubtle, manipulative films.

And they both lost.  Moore’s film tried to win the 2004 election for John Kerry; D’Souza’s first film tried to win 2012 for Mitt Romney.  Both made tons of money-both failed to achieve their more important objective.  This film is aimed at Obama again, to be sure–conservatives can’t clear their throats nowadays without expressing their contempt for this President.  But it’s also aimed at Hillary.  It’s making sure that We all understand what a Threat she is.  That’s nonsense, of course, and I think it’s likely to fail again. A diet of pure bile is never all that nourishing.  And this guy has nothing to offer but bile.

 

The border kids

I have a new hero.

His name is Clay Jenkins. He is County Judge for Dallas County, Texas.  Biggest city in that county is, as one might imagine, Dallas, the ninth largest city in the US.  The County Judge is the most important elected official in the county.  In addition to his responsibilities as a Judge, he’s also the guy who is responsible for coordinating relief efforts in the county with the federal Department of Homeland Security.

He’s an active Methodist.  He’s the first person in his family to ever graduate from college.  Has a law degree from Baylor.  And he and his wife have one child, a daughter.

And Clay Jenkins also volunteered his county to house and care for some of that flood of unaccompanied minor children coming into our country (illegally, a lot of them, not that that matters), from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador.

He volunteered.  He contacted the feds on this; he stepped up. Said his 8-year old daughter saw a news story about the crisis, and asked if she meet them; said she thought it would be fun to play with those children.

Clay Jenkins was featured on Rachel Maddow’s show yesterday, and of course, she asked him about the politics of this.  He said ‘the politics of this is that there are no politics of this.  These are children.’  He said he expected some backlash, but that he’d gone door to door and talked to people in the county. They supported it.  He talked to his pastor; talked to the local Baptist minister, the local Catholic priest.  Unanimous agreement; these were children, and they needed food and shelter and kindness; bring ‘em in.

Of course, it would be great if we could see this situation as Clay Jenkins sees it, in purely humanitarian terms.  But with thousands of desperate children, some with parents, many without, having made the dangerous journey from their home countries to escape violence, anarchy, the breakdown of civil society, with thousands of kids here, in internment camps and rough shelters along our borders, in Texas and California and Arizona, the issue has become more politicized than ever.

Sunday, and then again yesterday, I watched, switching channels from ABC News to CBS to CNN to MSNBC, and we saw the flashpoints, in Murrieta California. Flag waving protesters shouting ‘go back,’ and uglier slurs as buses full of children arrived for processing. Immigration officials finally giving up, diverting the buses elsewhere, trying to avoid subjecting these poor kids to more violence.  Above all, I saw the faces of the protesters, red-faced white folks (almost entirely), faces distorted in rage.  We’ve seen those same faces, haven’t we?  Back when I was a kid, just getting into watching news shows, a youthful news junky even then, watching footage from Birmingham and Selma, faces spewing hate as James Meredith tried to enroll in the college of his choice, as Dr. King talked about a dream.  Not the same people, but the same faces.  Enraged white folk, fearful of change, fearful of loss, fearful for their jobs in a tough economy, finding a single focus for all that fear.  And the faces of children, looking out bus windows, wondering when they could ever be safe again.

The politics of this are getting ugly.  And the cowardice of elected officials remains permanently on display.  I could care less about the legalities of the case; there are 50,000 kids here or arriving, with more on the way.  50, 60, 70 thousand: I don’t care.  They’re fleeing violence; they’re afraid for their lives.  Just as, during the Cold War, the United States welcomed Eastern Europeans who climbed The Wall, or burrowed under a fence or forged a passport, broke the law to escape tyranny, and we welcomed them with open arms, made exceptions for them, so should we do the same for these children and for their families.  Let ‘em in.  All of them in; let ‘em work here and live here and get an American education.  We’re a huge country and a rich country and we can do this and we should do this.

On this issue, at least, John Boehner has revealed himself as the greatest moral coward in the history of the Speakership.  President Obama’s not far behind him, frankly.  As these kids are ‘processed,’ many will be sent back, to disintegrating civil societies, to again fear, daily, for their lives.  It’s reprehensible and it’s wrong.  Let them stay.  All of them; let them all stay.

This is a minor consideration, but worth mentioning; American undocumented workers are a net plus for our economy by every possible measure, according to every non-partisan study that’s been done. They have a higher rate of entrepreneurship than most Americans generally.  They have far lower crime rates than the populace at large. They’re a great blessing to our nation, and they create more jobs than they perform, and their money circulates just the same as mine does.

Another minor consideration: yeah, they’re here illegally.  They broke the law to come in, some of them. It doesn’t matter.  The law they broke is a misdemeanor; the equivalent of a lane change traffic violation. The buzz-word politically is amnesty, so let’s shout that too: we’re in favor of amnesty!  Amnesty now, amnesty tomorrow, amnesty forever!  If I were a poor guy living in a poor country with a rich country next door, and if, to feed my family, all I had to do is disobey a law (a minor law, to boot, an unimportant law) and also risk a dangerous border, just to get work, just to feed my wife and children, I would do it in a second, and so would you. And anyone who says they wouldn’t isn’t telling you the truth.

And in this case, with what’s going on now, we’re talking about countries that do not border the United States, countries where parents are terrified that violence will touch their children.  I saw the footage: fifty kids, the youngest a two-year-old, covered with a blanket and tied to the roof of a train heading to America.  How desperate would you have to be, how frightened for your kids, how much of a last resort would that be?  And we’re seriously thinking of sending them back?  Are you kidding me?

Also this: their countries are disintegrating largely because of the inherent violence and instability of any product that is a) really lucrative, b) pretty easy to grow, and c) seriously illegal. To anyone who wants to shout from the rooftops that these kids (and other undocumented folks), are here ILLEGALLY!  THEY BROKE THE LAW!!!! I would suggest this: their countries, Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador are imploding, because America’s dentists and accountants and hedge fund managers and executive vice-Presidents and insurance adjusters and corporate attorneys can’t lay off the nose-candy. Because some super poor countries have one insanely profitable cash crop, a market for which exists here, not there. Lady Coke. Also, we have gun dealers who see an equally lucrative market heading back the other way.  So, yeah, they’ve formed gangs (small businesses), and cartels (big corporations), and they’re really seriously fighting for market share.

So at least, if we’re Christians, if we profess to be Christians in a Christian nation, let’s treat the collateral damage of that reality with some humanity.  Clay Jenkins sees it.  The politics of this is that there are no politics.  Just children, who need our help.

 

 

Pushback against war

Every Sunday, I tape This Week With George Stephanopoulos, one of the Sunday talk shows, in which Big Name journalists interview Big Name guests, followed by a panel discussion by ‘political experts’, carefully balanced between liberals and conservatives, except for when its not, in which case it’s always overbalanced right-ward.  It’s an awful show, really, and I usually can’t bring myself to actually watch it until Tuesday or Wednesday.  But it’s valuable, in that it gives you some insight into mainstream Beltway attitudes.

Anyway, this past Sunday’s show dealt mostly with Iraq, with quick-strike successes of ISIS, a Sunni insurgency.  Isis‘ stands for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or Iraq and Syria; depends on how your news outlet translates the name.  They’re scary, brutal, well-armed and on the move.  They keep taking cities in the Sunni north-west part of Iraq, and the well-trained (we were told), well-armed Iraqi army has mostly dealt with the threat Isis poses using the strategy “feet, don’t fail me now.”  (Little-known fact: ‘feets don’t fail me now’ was the catchphrase popularized by African-American actor Mantan Moreland.  Character actor, 1930s-40s, played a nervous, cowardly black stereotype, also worked standup.  Hey, it was a living.)

Anyway, Isis.  Scary, brutal, taking city after city, meeting minimal Iraqi army resistance.  And so ABC News was on the story, pointing out that Americans are, like, joining Isis by the dozens, so what if they came back to the States and decide to stay terrorists.  So President Obama needs to ‘do something.’  Everyone agreed on that.  The President needs to ‘act.’

So ABC’s panel, in addition to Stephanopoulos, consisted of Donna Brazile, Matthew Dowd, Bill Kristol and Katrina vanden Heuvel.  I’ve always liked Donna Brazile, a good-natured and sensible woman who seems mostly amused by the political vagaries of Washington politics.  Dowd is a former Bush staffer-turned-journalist (just as Stephanopoulos is a Clinton staffer-turned-journalist), but a bright, thoughtful political commentator. He’s a good match for Brazile–you sense that if you put them in a room together and asked them to solve, say, immigration politics, they’d put their heads together and come up with something bi-partisan and sensible. Bill Kristol, from the Weekly Standard, is a neo-conservative icon, and one of the most prominent and effective cheerleaders for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of The Nation, and a liberal.  I mostly can’t stand her.  She can be self-righteous and dismissive and annoying, the kind of liberal that makes conservatives hate liberals.  Some call her the ‘Ann Coulter of the left.’  She’s not that bad–she’s not off-her-meds nuts–but she’s bad enough.  I groaned when I saw that she was on the show.

But I gotta hand it to Katrina.  Bill Kristol’s all ‘President Obama needs to act’ (clearly code for ‘we need to send troops back there’).  And she called him out. And it was a beautiful thing to watch. And then Matthew Dowd weighed in (Dowd’s at the six minute mark), and if anything, he was more passionate on the subject than she was.

I have a son who served in Iraq, two tours of duty in Iraq.  We all know . . . everybody . . . most everybody knows that this has been a colossal waste of money and men and women, the blood of the men and women of our country.  Over five thousand of our people have been killed from our armed services, and its going to end up costing us probably three trillion dollars.  . . . we don’t fix a first mistake by continuing to make a second mistake, and if you ask anyone who’s an enlisted person in this, they will tell you that the only way this is going to get solved is that you have to commit troops there for a hundred years.  And that is not going to happen.

It just astonishes me how little accountability there has been over Iraq.  The standard line goes something like this: well, everyone thought Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.  Everyone agreed on that point, that Saddam was a dangerous threat.  So Bush needed to act.’  But this mainstream talking point is arrant nonsense.

The fact is, the United Nations had a weapons’ inspection team in Iraq, led by Hans Blix, throughout 2002 and 2003, before the invasion.  And Blix was desperate to get his message out, and his message was ‘we have found no WMD anywhere, and there’s no evidence of any actual threat.  Give us another two months.  You don’t need to invade.  I have good people on the ground, and in two months, they’ll have a definitive report.  And it’s almost certain to show no WMD.’  But no one in the mainstream media would give him a platform.  They were too busy saying ‘The President needs to act.’

And of course, Blix was right. Saddam was not a threat to the US or to US interests. “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” which came out of Bush’s White House Iraq Group, made for a nice marketing slogan, but it was never anything but nonsense.  Read Disarming Iraq, Blix’ book. He was right, entirely right, well in advance of the invasion. I knew perfectly well Saddam had no WMD, and that even a good man like Colin Powell was telling us things that weren’t true about Saddam’s nuclear capabilities.

The fact is, the American mainstream news media had all basically turned cheerleader for war by 2002.  They always will.  A show like This Week proves it.  The ‘journalists’ on that show love international ‘threats.’  They always, always will want the President to ‘do something.’  They’re obsessed with terrorism.  Here we are in 2014, and some of the biggest sporting events of the past six months have included the Olympics, the World Cup, the Boston Marathon, Wimbledon.  ABC News has done major stories on each of these events, each of them almost entirely focused on the possibility of a terrorist attack, and what precautions are we taking, and what is the likelihood of an attack, and what more should we be doing.  This Week has devoted entire episodes on the terror threat of each major sporting event as it happens.

Meanwhile, Syria is in crisis, and so is Egypt, and Lebanon’s getting dragged in, and let’s not forget what Russia’s doing in Ukraine, and of course there’s always Iran.  And these are all ‘dangerous situations,’ and the President absolutely needs to ‘do something’ about each of them.  And the something he’s supposed to do always, in every instance, involves some kind of military intervention.

So Katrina vanden Heuvel, who I mostly don’t like, finally, finally called someone out.  And Matthew Dowd, who has a son serving, backed her up. And the other commentators stood around looking embarrassed.

And of course, this is the pressure that President Obama is constantly under.  “Act!” I think it’s very much to his credit that we don’t have troops in Ukraine, Syria and Egypt right now, with more flying back to Iraq.  If ABC News had its way, we probably would.  If Bill Kristol had his way, for sure we would.

But of course, mainstream media has a liberal bias.  Everyone knows that.

Scary scary economics

So, okay, my wife and I were watching a Netflix movie last night.  It was that Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit thing.  Very entertaining, with Captain Kirk (the young one, Chris Pine) pretending to be an economist/CIA agent, Kevin Costner as his handler, Kenneth Branagh as a super-scary Russki bad guy, and Keira Knightley given absolutely nothing whatever do to except get rescued.

But here’s the bad guy’s plot.  He runs a Russian multi-national corporation, but one with a lot of assets that don’t turn up on their financial reports.  Which super-sleuth Jack Ryan (working for the American branch of the same multi-national as, I think, a shadow accountant/spy) digs deeply enough to find, the rest of the company’s accounting staff consisting, apparently, of trained chimpanzees.  It’s seriously amazing; he’s supposed to be doing this astonishing feat of accounting legerdemain, but from what we can see, it seems to consist mostly of Googling ‘my company’s hidden assets’ and waiting ten seconds.

Anyway, Jack sleuths around, and mopes over his laptop a lot, and blows off dates with Keira Knightley, and figures it out.  The Russians are buying American dollars.  A lot of dollars; like, 2 trillion dollars worth.  (Which are overvalued!  A company is buying overvalued assets!  What do they know!)  And then they’re going to sell ‘em all the same day, and destroy the American economy.  On the same day that a bomb goes off on Wall Street!  And it’ll totally work!  A second Great Depression!

I am not an economist, or a financial expert, or a stockbroker, or the CEO of a big corporation.  I’m a playwright who doesn’t know how to balance a checkbook.  But I have studied economics some (onnacounta this play dealy I wrote).  Lots of companies buy T-bills.  Buy and sell.  So, first of all, if you set off a bomb on Wall Street, they’d suspend trading and all those sell orders wouldn’t mean doodly squat.  But if you did suddenly sell dollars, what would happen?  Uh, not much, and nothing bad.

I texted my son (who is an economist) and described this nefarious plot.  He thought it was silly too, “because the ensuing low interest rates would just wreak havoc.”  (Cue heavy sarcasm music). And that’s about it.  Interest rates would go down.  Might spur investment.  Otherwise, yawn.

Now a truck bomb in downtown Manhattan would be bad.  And Our Hero thwarts that one too, with a big fight scene against the son of Branagh’s bad guy character, who is (of course) also in on it.  So yay for us!

But this is such a fantasy, oft-heard by conservatives.  “See, what happens if the Chinese decide to call in all that debt we owe them!  It would destroy our economy!”  But no, that’s not how it works.  If China suddenly decided to sell off all their treasuries, the price would go down, and they’d lose a ton of money. It would have no effect on the US economy.  Likewise, Russia. Or anyone else.  No one’s going to call in their debt, and if they did, it wouldn’t be a big deal.  It would lower interest rates some.

The movie makes passing mention of the reason this dastardly Russian plot would work; because the US national debt is so high.  And it’s true, our national debt is high.  And that might cause a problem sometime down the road.  But it’s not hurting anything now.  If the national debt were damaging to the economy today, we’d see it in a rise of inflation.  And that’s not happening.  And it would be good, right now, if we did see some mild inflation.  So that’s another chimera.

The 2 trillion dollars the Russians are planning, in the movie, to dump onto monetary markets is an interesting figure.  For one thing, if you want to destroy the American economy, it’s way way way too small.  It’s like a mouse saying ‘I know how to kill that elephant; feed it one more peanut.’  One multi-national corporation is not capable of destroying the American economy by selling off T-bills.  (It takes a whole bunch of corporations trading in worthless mortage-based CDOs!)  But it’s also more or less the same amount of cash that the biggest American corporations are sitting on right now, mostly stashing off-seas.  They’re not investing it, they’re not opening factories, they’re not hiring people; they’re just sitting on it. Why?  Demand is low.  It’s one of the ways bad economies self-perpetuate; people are worried about their jobs, so don’t purchase, so demand remains low, so companies don’t produce goods, and jobs aren’t created.  The way to break the cycle is with a stimulus–hire people, put them to work, get them consuming.  So what are the chances that a jobs bill, or any kind of stimulus bills, make it through the House of Representatives as currently constituted?

This is all just macro-economics 101.  I don’t blame Kenneth Branagh (who also did a nice job directing the film, which I quite liked), for not knowing how silly the plot was. I blame Tom Clancy, who wrote the novel it’s based on.  The sky is not falling, the Russians (or the Chinese, or Somali pirate cartels) are not capable of destroying the American economy with one big trade on them there fancy schmancy computer-type internet deals.

It’s a harmless enough movie.  Chris Pine is great in it, and so is Kevin Costner.  Plus there’s a brief Nonso Anozie sighting (a very large but really good British actor who I’ve liked in everything I’ve seen him in).  As my wife pointed out, we don’t want action movies to feature actually workable, plausible terrorist plots.  We want silly ones.  And she’s completely right.  But there’s silly and then there’s silly.  It really only works for people who don’t know anything about economics, which means, of course, most people.  Don’t be troubled, though.  It really, genuinely is just a movie.

The Case Against 8: film review

On the morning that I had set aside to watch The Case Against 8–the HBO documentary about the legal challenge to California’s Proposition 8–I received two news alerts.  The first was about how an District Judge had ruled Indiana’s ban on same sex marriage unconstitutional.  I’m from Indiana, so that was particularly interesting, as well as serendipitous, given the film I was watching.  A few minutes later, another news alert informed me that the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals had upheld Judge Richard Shelby’s decision which similarly overturned Utah’s same sex marriage ban.  The Utah decision, Kitchen v. Herbert, will likely be further appealed to the US Supreme Court, which is also where Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the case described in the film, ended up.

Although it’s a film about one of the most contentious political/social issues of our time, I actually found The Case Against 8 kind of celebratory.  What it was celebrating was not, mostly, marriage equality, but the American legal system.  Our legal system is, in many respects, kind of a mess, of course.  But this film spent most of its 110 minutes following lawyers as they worked on the case.  And, of course, the two main lawyers in the case were Theodore Olson and David Boies.

Remember Ted Olson and David Boies?  They were the opposing attorneys in Bush v. Gore.  Ted Olson is a conservative icon, one of the giants of the conservative movement.  Boies is equally well known in liberal circles. When Chad Griffin, one of the founders for the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), happened to meet with Ted Olson, other members of AFER’s board were initially skeptical.  But Olson, in addition to being a brilliant attorney, is a passionate supporter of marriage equality, which he believes is an important conservative issue and ideal.  He talks about it in the film, how conservatives believe families are the foundation of society, and should therefore support anyone’s right to marry.

Over the course of the film (which followed five years worth of legal battles), we can see how much Boies and Olson admire each other.  Olson says that Boies is as skilled at  cross-examination as any lawyer ever. Boies calls Olson’s closing argument in the initial District Court case the best he’s ever seen.  Sadly, we don’t get to see them much in action–federal court proceedings are closed to the public.  We do get the next best thing; Olson reading from a transcript of his closing argument.

The one exception is in the depositions we’re shown. That’s another specialty of Boies, and we do get a sense of his approach.  The defendants in the case had eight expert witnesses they wanted to call, each supporting traditional marriage. We only see the experts’ faces; Boies is just a voice off-camera.  He’s mild, reasonable.  He’ll say “now, would you say that such and such is true?”  “Yes,” says the expert, “I guess I do.”  Boies: “well, if that’s the case, then wouldn’t it follow that thus and such is also true?”  Expert: “Yes, I guess so.”  Boies: “well, then, wouldn’t it be logical to conclude that this final thing is true?”  And the experts would falter, as they realized they had just made a most damaging admission.  And then, the filmmakers would tell us, that expert witness ended up deciding not to testify in court after all.

Eight expert witnesses, all of them so damaged by Boies in their depositions that they withdrew from the case, without him ever once raising his voice, or sounding anything but pleasant and calm.  And so, the defendants ended up with only one expert witness, a guy named David Blankenhorn, who (the film shows us), subsequently had a complete change of heart, and now is an enthusiastic supporter of marriage equality.  He says so right there in the film.

The film has other heroes, though.  AFER wanted to be sure that the plaintiffs in the case would be good representatives of the marriage-seeking gay community.  They selected two couples, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, and Jeff Zarillo and Paul Katimi.  They’re all terrific; just ordinary people, deeply in love, smart and articulate folks who want to spend their lives together.  Perry and Stier each had children from earlier relationships, and they included the children in the decision to pursue the case.  And we see the cost of it.  We hear some of the threatening phone calls they received, and we see the protesters in front of the various courtrooms in which they appear.  Perry is a little older than Stier, and she comes across a bit more poised, perhaps, while Stier seems a bit more emotional.  Zarillo talks about how nervous he was before testifying, and how his leg wouldn’t stop shaking, until Katimi leaned over and patted him on the knee, calmed him down.  You like all four of them. They’re easy to root for.

The film, of course, doesn’t even pretend to be objective.  I mean, the title of it is The Case Against Eight; a dispassionate analysis of the issues relating to marriage equality is clearly not in the cards.  LDS viewers worried about a Church-bashing film needn’t worry, though–Mormonism is only mentioned, very briefly, once, in passing.

But it’s really a film about the genius of the constitution, about the checks and balances that moderate pure democracy.  We see democracy–the voice of the people– in action in this film, and it’s not a pleasant sight. Outside each court venue, protesters gather, on either side of the issue, and frankly, they’re mostly a sorry lot, passionately unreasonable.  The secret to getting noticed by television cameras is to make a memorable poster or sign, but ‘memorable’ in this case does not suggest a commitment to reasoned discourse.  The fact is, Proposition 8 was an exercise in democracy–it was a state-wide referendum.  This film is about a legal challenge to that referendum’s constitutionality.  And it presents legal battles compellingly.  Olson and Boies and the teams of lawyers who work with them all seem attractive in the same way that intelligent people who are good at their jobs are always attractive.  I’m glad we live in a democratic republic, even when it seems dysfunctional, as ours sometimes does today.  But what’s on display in this film is the constitution in action, courts overturning pure majority rule, thus defending the rights of unpopular minorities.

Given the events of today, I should add one final note.  The ‘pro-traditional-marriage side’ of this debate really needs some better arguments.  I don’t mean to be snarky here, but that side of the question is on a major losing streak nowadays, and it seems likely to continue.  In the Utah case, for example, one argument that was presented is that the word ‘marriage’ has always been defined as being between one man and one woman, so the term ‘same sex marriage’ is fundamentally oxymoronic.  Today’s 10th Circuit decision (found here) eviscerated that argument:

Appellants’ assertion that plaintiffs are excluded from the institution of marriage by definition is wholly circular. Nothing logically or physically precludes same-sex couples from marrying, as is amply demonstrated by the fact that many states now permit such marriages. Appellants’ reliance on the modifier “definitional” does not serve a meaningful function in this context. To claim that marriage, by definition, excludes certain couples is simply to insist that those couples may not marry because they have historically been denied the right to do so. One might just as easily have argued that interracial couples are by definition excluded from the institution of marriage.
In other words, ‘guys, that’s a really bad argument.  Try a different one.’  But it points to a problem.  People who support marriage equality (including some insanely smart attorneys) have been waiting for this moment for years.  They’ve been studying, preparing, bouncing ideas off each other, engaging in passionate argumentation about it.  Isn’t it fair to suggest that people who support traditional marriage have been, during the same time frame, pretty complacent?  This ‘definitional’ argument would suggest so.  ‘Marriage has always been understood a certain way.  So that should just continue.’  But as the 10th Circuit so memorably put it “we see no reason to allow Utah’s invocation of its power to define the marital relation to become a talisman, by whose magical power the whole fabric which the law had erected is at once dissolved.”
The Deseret News has published nearly daily op-eds and letters opposing marriage equality.  The arguments presented there have been pretty much always terrible ones. The most recent article, for example, presented this summation of the issues:
To advocates of same-sex marriage, gays and lesbians are seeking normalcy. Gays and lesbians say they want the legal right to express their loving relationships through government recognition of their unions. To advocates of man-woman unions, marriage cannot be casually redefined. Male-female relationships are the foundation for sexual reproduction, and supporters say that marriage between a man and a woman provides for the optimal rearing of children, who constitute society’s future generations.
His ‘compromise solution’ was federalism; let every state decide. But this writer can’t even get the facts right.  As the 10th Circuit explicitly stated, this is a Fourteenth Amendment case.  Gays and lesbians aren’t pleading for the right to marry, they’re arguing that they already have that right, as citizens, and that it’s been denied them due to nothing but discrimination.  They seek equal protection under the law.  And that argument is winning.
Find better arguments.  Or you’re going to lose.  That’s the unspoken conclusion of this film.  And Kitchen v. Herbert explicitly made the same case today.

 

 

The Deseret News gets Iraq wrong

Every morning of my life, I read The Deseret News on-line.  I’m not sure why I do this. It’s a comically bad newspaper.  Habit, I suppose.  I’ve read a daily newspaper since I was 7.  The DN covers Utah County pretty well, where I live, plus it’s a great window into mainstream Utah Mormon culture, a culture I live amidst and which I do not understand at all.

But it’s a terrible paper, and the editorial page is especially risible.  For awhile the DN was on a roll in which it published a daily op-ed piece opposing gay marriage.  Every single day, for months. You’d think they’d run out of things to say, but no, their inventiveness had no limits.  They’re down to 3, 4 times a week now on that.  And what’s great is that the arguments they present against SSM almost always turn out, the closer you look at them, to be great arguments for it.

Anyway, today the editorial board decided to weigh in on Iraq.  Here’s the link.  What makes this hilarious, though, is not the editorial itself, but the comments section in the on-line version.

You can follow the link, but I thought I’d provide some highlights too, for those of you who don’t want to bother.  The op-ed piece is your basic common-or-garden neo-conservative line.  Invading Iraq was awesome, because we were planting seeds of democracy in the Middle East.

The invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein may well have been finished at that point, but the mission of establishing a free, peaceful and self-sustaining government there was far from over.

That still is the case today, which makes President Barack Obama’s declaration in 2011 that, on the occasion of the U.S. withdrawal, “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq,” just as infamous and embarrassing. The United States withdrew too early, reacting more to political pressures at home than to the long-term dangers of an Iraq too unstable to protect itself.

Americans now face the real danger of Iraq becoming a radical Islamic state. ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, now controls much of Iraq and is threatening to topple Baghdad.

ISIS likely wouldn’t have been able to gain such a foothold if U.S. forces remained in Iraq in sufficient strength to help the government establish itself.

Late last week, Obama seemed reluctant to provide much aid to the Iraqi government, announcing that no ground troops would re-enter the country. Obama said Iraq has political problems, noting that the U.S. has made huge sacrifices (about 5,000 casualties, for starters) in an effort to give Iraq a representative democracy, but that the leaders of that country have been unable to overcome sectarian differences. Until that is corrected, he said, the U.S. won’t be able to fix things with “short-term military action.”

But a dysfunctional representative government is far better than what ISIS has to offer, and the president’s approach to the situation seems inadequate given the threats to the United States.

The editorial then went on, kind of subtly, to suggest that we need troops back in Iraq, and that it was the sad duty of the President to explain to everyone why we needed to go back. Yay!  More American soldiers fighting (and dying) in Iraq!  How very jolly.

And then the comments section took over:

If Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his 900,000-man army, and Shia militia cannot defend Baghdad from a few thousand Islamist warriors, America is under no obligation to do it for them. Also, remember please that we left because Maliki told us to get out. (Marxist)

Followed by this, from a guy calling himself Bob.

Why was it our place to not only go into another country and force out the leader that held it together (bad guy or not), then assume we should choose their government for them?
What about the fact that we destroyed the infrastructure of the country and killed a couple hundred thousand of its citizens? Do people with no electricity or water and a dead son start loving the USA and wanting to be like us?
What about the arrogance of thinking we are so great that groups who have been adversaries for hundreds of years will drop that and follow us?
And what about the trillions of dollars drained from our country? Our dead boys?
Obama was trying to make the best of a bad situation and get the heck out of a place we can’t fix.

From a guy calling himself FatherofFour, with military experience in Iraq.

We withdrew along the timetable set by the SOFA agreement between the Iraqi government and the Bush administration in 2008. Obama did not set our withdrawal timeline, that was done before he even became president. I served in Baghdad from 2003-2004 and the mission was extremely unclear. Now, according to this editorial, you want us all to go back and stay for an undefined amount of time. Which side do you want us to support? The Shia’s who are aligned with Iran, make up the majority of the Iraqi population, and want to impose an Islamic theocracy similar to Iran? The Iraqi constitution already states that Iraq is governed by Islamic law. Or do you want to support the Sunnis who are aligned with ISIS and Al-Qaeda? Those are the only two choices. Or do you just want to do the opposite of whatever President Obama suggests? That is likely the reality here.

Another Iraq war veteran weighed in.  This was the comment that got to me; the passion, outrage, anger and pain expressed should command our fullest attention and respect:

 

I was in Iraq in 2004-2005 as an old gristled Sergeant, then I retired after I returned home. Too many good men and women were killed and permanently maimed while serving in Iraq. The Iraqis hated us and threw rocks at us as we drove through the country. They set IEDs alongside the roads. It was a horrible place to serve, and when we left a year later, nothing had changed. There were far too few of us to maintain order. It seemed like the military was half-committed to winning and didn’t expect that some Pepsi cans on the side of the road would cause abject fear in otherwise tough men.

I saw comrades from my own platoon blown to bits before my very eyes by an IED. It is something I will never forget no matter how hard I try. Their lives were NOT worth it. This editorial trivializes the lives of the men and women and their families who were forever changed by this misguided war. Let them work it out. There is nothing we can do to permanently keep order there. Read their history and you’ll understand.

What a remarkable perspective.  I like this one, too, from ‘Esquire’, from Springville:

And so you are saying to send in troops. Your approach didn’t work in 2003. It made things much, much worse. Who is writing your editorials? Dick Cheney? This newspaper editorial board baffles me. Talk about naive, irresponsible and ignorant of history. Didn’t you also advocate arming the Syrian rebels, the same folks leading the charge into Iraq? Your judgment, and that of McCain, Chaffetz, and the entire Bush neo-con team, is utterly a waste of time and devoid of good sense. We tried your way, and all it did was destabilize the Middle East, feed the snake of terrorism and burdened the West for decades to come. Our national interests are exactly not what you are promoting.

“Naive, irresponsible and ignorant of history.”  The same guy, Esquire, later commented on the same thread:

Reading the comments, it seems to me that the editorial board would do well to listen to its readers. They are providing a lot more insight and common sense than this editorial.

As I post this today, there are 32 comments in the on-line version of this editorial.  All 32 oppose it.  All of them ferociously, angrily, furiously rejecting the Deseret News‘ position.  And all of them, without exception, are better informed, more knowledgeable, and more historically grounded than the DN editorial board.

I’ve never been prouder to be a Utahn.

 

Excommunication, Republican-style

Excommunication has been much in the news lately, and especially in Mormon circles.  It’s always a little surprising for me when issues relating to Mormonism receive national attention.  The John and Kate story has recently been a big story in the Huffington Post, the New York Times, Good Morning America.  I mean, when Mitt Romney was running for President, his religious beliefs were, quite properly, part of the American political conversation.  I get that.  But the letters received by John Dehlin and Kate Kelly?  Why is that a national story?  In part, I’m sure, it’s because Mormons are weird.

When I say that we’re weird, I don’t mean because we seem to like green jello, or because we wear strange underwear.  It’s not because we oppose gay marriage, or don’t drink coffee.  It’s because we believe in other books of scripture than the Bible, because there are men we refer to as ‘prophets,’ because we claim the power of revelation, because we have these big pretty buildings we call ‘temples,’ because we send out thousands of young missionaries (kids, who wear suits and go around preaching).  We’re weird, I think, in part because we believe in a set of quite specific doctrines, many of them way outside the Christian mainstream.  And because we excommunicate.

That has to seem oddly medieval to people outside our faith, doesn’t it?  I’ve been researching a play set in the 11th century, about a clash between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope; excommunication was central to that conflict, because that particular Emperor wanted to ordain bishops, and that Pope considered ordination an exclusively papal responsibility.  Because the Pope excommunicated the Emperor. And then they nearly fought a war over it.  Thousands of young men nearly died, because of that disagreement over ecclesiastical prerogatives.  And Catholics historically excommunicated lots of people who taught heterodox doctrines.

Boy, not any more.  I know lots of Catholics who disagree with the Church on really fundamental questions, like abortion, birth control, celibacy.  Nobody gets excommunicated for it.

I also read a book recently about the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who was excommunicated as a Jew at the age of 23 (and who was later honored by the Catholic Church when they put his books on the Index of Forbidden Books).  John Dehlin recently talked about Jewish people, friends of his, who may not even believe that God exists, but are still regarded as respectable and faithful Jews by their rabbis.

Mostly, excommunication doesn’t happen much anymore.  But this week, it occurred to me that it sort of does happen politically.  It’s probably because the big political news of the week was the primary defeat of Eric Cantor in Virginia.  But isn’t there a sense in which Cantor could be said to have been excommunicated?  Because of doubts within his ‘church’ over the authenticity and orthodoxy of his beliefs?

Okay, in case you were vacationing on Mars last week, Eric Cantor was the House Majority Leader, the third highest ranking Republican in Washington, after the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader.  He represents the Virginia Seventh (the “fightin’ Seventh,” as Stephen Colbert would put it).  He lost in the Republican primary to a Tea Party-supported economics professor named Dave Brat.  Cantor outspent Brat by a massive amount.  Polls showed him winning by a wide margin.  But he lost, and lost badly.  It was a huge upset.

Brat was essentially a one-issue candidate, hammering Cantor for supporting immigration reform, which Brat characterized as ‘amnesty.’  So this election was seen nationally as kind of a referendum on immigration reform, and a confirmation of a national narrative that sees the Tea Party as hopelessly nativist and borderline racist.  In fact, as the invaluable Rachel Maddow pointed out this week, in-depth polling of the Virginia Seventh District shows that Virginia voters didn’t care much about immigration.  It wasn’t an important issue to them.  Brat kept hammering it, and he did win, but Maddow argued that Brat would have won just as easily if he’d picked another issue to hammer Cantor over.  The fact was, Cantor’s unfavorable ratings were very very high.  He wasn’t popular in his district.  He seemed much more focused on his Washington career (and his probable advancement to House Speaker), than on the issues that mattered to his district.  And on conservative, Tea Party issues, he seemed . . . insincere.

In post-election interviews, Cantor kept saying something that seemed weird to me.  He said that he would continue ‘fighting for the conservative cause.’  If he had been a Democrat, I think he wouldn’t have said ‘I will keep fighting for the liberal cause.’  He would probably say something like ‘fighting for the issues that matter to the American people,’ or ‘fighting for the issues that matter to the people of Virginia,’ or ‘fighting for what I believe in.’  Liberalism isn’t an ideology.  And conservatism is one.

Look, it’s a truism that all politicians pay lip service to issues, but the only issue they really care about is their own election/re-election.  In fact, I do think some folks get into politics because they care about certain issues.  I love the TV show Veep, and Selina Meyer, the politician played so wonderfully by Julia Louis-Dreyfus is entirely career focused–she doesn’t care about anything, or believe in anything, and her cynicism (and the utter cynicism of all the characters) is key to the comedy.  It’s satire.  Satire’s always exaggerates for comedic effect–that’s how it works.  And there may well be politicians that cynical, but mostly they’re not, I think. They may compromise, but they still believe.

But Tea Party voters today really do seem to get angry when politicians don’t believe in the issues they believe in as fervently as they believe in them.  Eric Cantor would sometimes explain his support for immigration reform in political terms–’we’re up against some hard demographic truths, we need to reach out to Hispanic voters, who will never vote for us if they perceive us as, you know, racist, so we need this, we need immigration reform.’  There’s some terrific footage of Cantor trying a variant of that argument in a town meeting, and getting roundly booed.  He didn’t believe in what Tea Party Republicans believe.  He was an opportunist, a political calculator.  He wasn’t ideologically pure.  And so he got fired.  Excommunicated.

The Democratic equivalent has to be Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign in 2008.  She had voted for the war in Iraq.  To many liberals, the war in Iraq was anathema.  Barack Obama had not supported the war.  That made him seem more authentically Democratic, more genuinely liberal.  And so he won the nomination, and eventually the Presidency.  So yeah, liberals can do it too.  But the war in Iraq really was important.  It really was defining.

And for the Tea Party, the list of ‘really important, ideologically defining’ issues is very long.  You have to, absolutely have to oppose Obamacare.  You have to be against immigration reform.  You have to oppose the minimum wage increase.  Gay marriage and abortion are, as always, crucial.  Any tax increases, at all, ever, for anyone, ever, is political suicide.  Cutting spending is embraced with an evangelical fervor.

Dave Brat is an ideological extremist, and will, if elected this fall, make Congress crazier.  He’s an ‘economics professor,’ but exists on the Ayn Randian lunatic fringe of his discipline.  But I also get why he won.  He seemed genuinely to care about the issues his constituents cared about.  He comes across as sincere.  And Eric Cantor does not seem similarly authentic.

So they excommunicated him, for ideological impurity.  What a weird world we live in these days.  In a week where the Mormon part of it got weird too.