Category Archives: Politics

Obergefell v. Hodges: two sides of the same debate

And so, now Obergefell v. Hodges has come down. Not a shocking result, honestly, though I did think the vote would be 7-2 or 6-3, and not another razor thin 5-4 margin. I wonder if it’s possible that Chief Justice Roberts was hoping for a more conciliatory and moderate draft from Justice Kennedy, one he might be able to join, and was taken aback by how sweeping Kennedy’s decision was. But it’s done, and is unlikely to be undone. SCOTUSblog has lots of outstanding expert legal analysis on the decision; time for me to weigh in with my decidedly inexpert parsing of it. (As always, I am just a playwright with wifi; I do not claim any legal or scholarly credentials).

What strikes me, reading both Kennedy’s decision and the dissents from Roberts and from Scalia, Alito and Thomas, is the degree to which they’re writing at cross purposes. They’re not even addressing the same issues. That’s been true throughout this debate. One side insists that the central issue here is a radical redefinition of marriage, that it’s about how marriage even gets defined and who should define it, even, on the margins, calling this particular redefinition a potentially catastrophic and certainly radical social experiment. What that leads to, frankly, is federalism. Conservatives are generally fonder of federalism than liberals are, and that’s the main issue that Roberts addresses; whether unelected judges should define something as fundamental to society as marriage, or whether The People should define it, through their elected officials, state by state.

That’s a reasonable position. But if, in fact, citizens of the United States have a fundamental right to marry, then to deny that right to members of an unpopular minority is a wrong that needs to be redressed. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that all citizens receive equal protection under the law. If some citizens of the United States are denied legal equality by the states in which they happen to reside, then that becomes a matter for judicial intervention. Citizens are being harmed. Citizens are being discriminated against. And it’s not just appropriate for courts to step in; it’s necessary. That’s their function.

Put another way, does Kennedy’s decision in Obergefell bully the states? Is this a situation where courts unfairly tell states what they can and can’t do? Or is this a situation where states are bullying gay people, and the court is telling them to cut it out?

So: do citizens have a right to marry? The Constitution never mentions marriage; the word ‘marriage’ never appears in the Bill of Rights. So how can Justice Kennedy insist that there is a constitutional right to marry? Here’s Justice Roberts final paragraph:

If you are among the many Americans—of whatever sexual orientation—who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.

So let’s talk about rights, and let’s talk about history. What is a ‘right worthy of constitutional protection?’ And what I write next may seem simple-minded and foolish. It may be presumptuous of me to say that my status as a layman, my lack of legal credentials, could also give me a different, and dare I say, needed perspective. But here goes. Rights are fundamental areas into which government cannot intrude. And rights are basically what most people believe to be rights. You believe that something is a right because, come on, of course that’s a right. Why wouldn’t it be?

It’s certainly true that the Framers never mentioned marriage. But then, their understanding of marriage was very different from ours. The primary legal requirement in 18th century America involved the posting of the banns, which took place three weeks before the wedding. (And I suspect that was mostly for well-off families). You could register a marriage with the county clerk, but this was rarely done. Divorce was difficult to obtain. Marriage itself was a subset of property law.

More to the point, though, the Bill of Rights did not include a right to marry, because nobody thought to include one. I mean, fathers might forbid their daughters marrying some wastrel n’er-do-well (leading, at least in novels, to spectacular elopements), but the idea that a government entity would forbid some marriage or another was just nonsense. It just wasn’t the kind of thing that ever happened.

But soldiers were quartered in people’s houses without the owner’s consent. The British had done that, and it was bitterly resented. So the Third Amendment is in the Bill of Rights, though today it’s mostly just considered a charming anachronism.  And states and communities did insist that men form militias, and drill periodically with their muskets, and so we have the Second Amendment, though its meaning has morphed weirdly into a right to buy a hunting rifle at Cabela’s.

Most particularly, the Bill of Rights does not include a right to vote. That’s because the Framers wanted to limit the voting franchise. But today, we believe that all adult citizens have the right to vote. And getting those rights into the Constitution required further amendments; the Fifteenth and Nineteenth.

Not long ago, a friend of mine proposed on Facebook this: that there existed a fundamental right for all children to be reared by their biological parents. Would I support calling that a right? I’d never thought of it before; never considered it. So I thought about it. And after some somber reflection, I decided that that idea was crazy. I couldn’t have disagreed more. The simple reality is that some biological parents are terribly neglectful and abusive, enough so that they’ve forfeited their parental rights. And other people just can’t deal with kids, and give them up for adoption, and that’s terrific, that’s a great thing, adoption is a wonderful human institution giving kids in tough situations a chance. So there you are. Someone proposed that something should be considered a right. I disagreed, and I think most folks would disagree. That’s a decidedly minority position. So it’s not a right.

So, okay, what about marriage? Do citizens, consenting adults who have decided to commit their lives together, have a basic, fundamental, human right to do that, to marry?  Should we consider that right as basic and fundamental as the right to free speech, or freedom of the press, or the freedom to worship freely? The Obergefell decision lists lots of case law precedents to support the majority’s claim that marriage is a right, but let’s instead just be, you know, people. What do we think? Don’t worry about legalities; is the right to marry a fundamental human right?

Man, I can’t imagine how anyone could say that it isn’t. I mean, not everyone gets to marry, and not all marriages work. But we think divorce is a tragedy, and feel compassion for our unmarried friends, precisely because we think marriage is so important.  Think about it. Is anything more basic than our society’s commitment to marriage? Is there anything more intrinsically, fundamentally important than marriage? Is there a choice we make, ever, that’s more important?

Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work out, and there’s terrible heartbreak and sorrow and pain involved. But that fact only shows how important it is, how essential we regard it as being. For two people to say ‘I choose you, I commit my life to you, I have decided that you are the one person on earth I want to be with for the rest of my life’ goes right to the heart of what it means to be a human being. And in our culture, in American culture in the 21st century, the main way people make that kind of public declaration of that commitment is through the institution we call marriage. Of course, some people choose not to marry; that’s also their right. But it basically comes down to this: are gay people fully citizens of the United States? And if not, why not? That’s the question that Justice Kennedy answered so eloquently:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

This is not to say that the concerns of the other side aren’t worthy of our consideration. But I would suggest to you that marriage is a right, and that the more you think about it, the more you’ll agree that it has to be. And that’s why I say, after careful reflection, that Obergefell was rightly decided.

King v. Burwell decided. Yay.

This morning, the US Supreme Court handed down its decision in Carter v. Burwell, otherwise known as the Obamacare decision. Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority, and ruled against the plaintiffs in the case. Essentially, the arguments made by the Obama administration won. And great rejoicing was heard throughout the land.

Actually, that’s kind of true, the great rejoicing part. Oh, sure, there were ill-tempered rumblings in the tiny village of Scaliaville, and presumably the twin cities of Thomas and Alito were less than entirely gruntled. But the muted response from the GOP suggests the corner into which a different decision would have painted them. Ten million people are currently enrolled in the Affordable Care Act insurance policies available to them, most of whom would, in all likelihood, have lost their coverage. Republicans in Congress would have had to come up with some alternative plan, some new ideas, which they frankly don’t have. Republican Presidential candidates can go back to safely denouncing ‘Obamacare’ without facing unpleasant consequences (until they have to face the general electorate, which is coming around on the ACA).  Democrats are breathing a sigh of relief right now, because the ACA, like Keanu Reeves, has dodged another bullet. Listen carefully: you can hear John Boehner’s quiet ‘whew.’

Here’s what King v. Burwell is about, best I can understand it. (And, as always, remember, I’m not a legal expert in any sense. Not a lawyer, not a law professor, just a playwright with wifi, and an addiction to SCOTUSblog).  The way Obamacare works is that people who couldn’t have previously have afforded health insurance were able to receive a federal subsidy to help pay for it in a health care exchange. States were supposed to set up those exchanges, which are sort of on-line insurance stores. But in fact, 34 states didn’t set them up. Another provision of the ACA allows the federal government to set up a national exchange, which is, in fact, where most people got their policies. But the bill was awkwardly worded. It’s possible to read one small section of the bill as saying that the only people eligible for subsidies were those who bought their insurance in state exchanges. Here’s the relevant passage, from Section 36 B of the ACA: subsidies could go to those who purchased insurance in “an exchange established by the State.” Well, did that mean that people who bought theirs in the federal exchange were therefore not eligible for the subsidy? That was what the plaintiffs argued.

Right at the beginning, Chief Justice Roberts tells us his approach:

If the statutory language is plain, the Court must enforce it according to its terms. But oftentimes the meaning—or ambiguity—of certain words or phrases may only become evident when placed in context. So when deciding whether the language is plain, the Court must read the words in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.

I mean, obviously. I’ll grant that the statute’s language was unclear. But could Congress seriously have intended to limit so drastically the scope of the subsidies? Isn’t it obvious that someone just screwed up? The whole point of the bill is to allow people who couldn’t otherwise afford it to get insurance. Obviously, subsidies had to be available to everyone. The kind of exchange, state or federal, you bought it from is clearly unimportant and irrelevant.

What Roberts gave us, therefore, is a common sense reading of the statute. What’s the bill trying to accomplish? If the meaning of one passage is unclear, go back to basics. Assume that Congress didn’t stick five words in the middle of a big, important bill that would undermine everything else it’s meant to accomplish. Here’s his conclusion:

Petitioners’ plain-meaning arguments are strong, but the Act’s context and structure compel the conclusion that Section 36B allows tax credits for insurance purchased on any Exchange created under the Act. Those credits are necessary for the Federal Exchanges to function like their State Exchange counterparts, and to avoid the type of calamitous result that Congress plainly meant to avoid.

Roberts did adopt a ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ tone to point out what he called the bill’s ‘inartful drafting.’  “The Act does not reflect the type of care and deliberation that one might expect of such significant legislation,” wrote Roberts, an elegant prose stylist saddened by awkward phrasing by a lesser writer. Frankly, I wish he had taken Congress more sternly to task. There’s no reason why five poorly chosen words in a too-hastily drafted law should have jeopardized the health coverage for millions of Americans.

Roberts is generally described as a ‘conservative,’ and the word seems apt. But his final two paragraphs give us a window into the kind of conservative he aspires to be.

In a democracy, the power to make the law rests with those chosen by the people. Our role is more confined—“to say what the law is.” Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 177 (1803). That is easier in some cases than in others. But in every case we must respect the role of the Legislature, and take care not to undo what it has done. A fair reading of legislation demands a fair understanding of the legislative plan. Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter. Section 36B can fairly be read consistent with what we see as Congress’s plan, and that is the reading we adopt.

In contrast, Scalia’s temper tantrum of a dissent reveals his own brand of conservatism. His is the kind of textual literalism that allows for not the tiniest ambiguity or context.

The Court holds that when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act says “Exchange established by the State” it means “Exchange established by the State or the Federal Government.” That is of course quite absurd, and the Court’s 21 pages of explanation make it no less so. This case requires us to decide whether someone who buys insurance on an Exchange established by the Secretary gets tax credits. You would think the answer would be obvious—so obvious there would hardly be a need for the Supreme Court to hear a case about it. In order to receive any money, an individual must enroll in an insurance plan through an “Exchange established by the State.” The Secretary of Health and Human Services is not a State. So an Exchange established by the Secretary is not an Exchange established by the State—which means people who buy health insurance through such an Exchange get no money.  Under all the usual rules of interpretation, in short, the Government should lose this case. But normal rules of interpretation seem always to yield to the overriding principle of the present Court: The Affordable Care Act must be saved. We should start calling this law SCOTUScare.

Accusing Roberts of knee-jerk partisanship, Scalia reveals his own blinkered partisanship. By refusing to look at a strangely worded passage in context–and by refusing to acknowledge the possibility of simply human error in drafting a statute–Scalia demonstrates yet again how bizarre his understanding of collegiality has become. Would he seriously have deprived millions of fellow citizens of health care coverage (and the attendant protections against medical emergencies or serious accidents) simply out of pique, or because one phrase in a 20, 000 page bill was ambiguously worded? Apparently so, sadly.

Still, the right thing happened, and for the right reasons. Whew indeed.

 

Charleston, race, and the confederate flag

Like, I’m sure, all of you, I have been heartsick over the senseless murders in Charleston. I don’t understand it. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is one of the oldest and most important black churches in the country. They were holding a Bible Study class, and welcomed the shooter with open arms, and held an hour-long dialogue with him, before he opened fire. I don’t understand any of that. How can you look people in the face, how can you talk to fellow human beings, how can you study with them, how can you hold a conversation with someone, and then pull out a weapon and start shooting? It’s incomprehensible.

I debated whether or not to use the killer’s name. He pretty clearly wanted to publicize his cause, and part of me doesn’t even want to allow him that tiny victory, of attaching his name to the names of the extraordinary men and women worshipping that night at Emanuel AME. At the same time, I feel like perhaps it would be just as wrong to deny this deeply troubled young man his humanity. He’s clearly ill, clearly delusional. His cause would deny the common humanity of those who he hated so pointlessly. And the families of the victims who spoke at his bond hearing expressed such an astonishing willingness to forgive, it humbles me, sets me an example I do not know I will be able to live up to.  So, let’s say it this way. On June 17th, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, a librarian, Susie Jackson, a church choir singer, Ethel Lee Lance, a church sexton, Depayne Middleton Doctor, a school administrator, Clementa C. Pinckney, a pastor and state senator, Tywanza Sanders, Susie Jackson’s niece, Daniel Simmons, a pastor, Sharonda, Coleman-Singleton, a pastor, speech therapist and track coach, and Myra Thompson, a Bible Study teacher were brutally murdered by Dylan Roof, a racist.

So what do we do now? President Obama called for national legislation restricting the purchase of firearms. He’s absolutely right about that, and I have no hope whatsoever of it actually happening. But the African-American community in South Carolina have called for a lesser, more symbolic response. They have asked to have the Confederate flag removed from the statehouse grounds. Obviously, this cannot happen without Republican support; very much to his credit, Mitt Romney called for it as well.

Not many others, though. The main Republican candidates for President were all asked about it; their responses were monuments to cowardice and political expediency. But perhaps we shouldn’t expect much from politicians.

As Larry Willmore pointed out on his show on Monday night, the Emanuel AME Church is found on Calhoun Street in Charleston. Calhoun was the most significant exponent of the ‘positive good’ theory of slavery.

I hold that in the present state of civiliza­tion, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good-a positive good. I feel myself called upon to speak freely upon the subject where the honor and interests of those I represent are involved. I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one por­tion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other.

John C. Calhoun, Speech in the US Senate, 1837

 

What this means is that every piece of correspondence sent or received from the Emanuel AME Church bears the name of a defender and supporter of slavery. That every car filled with worshippers at that Church drives down a street named for the most significant racist in the political history of the United States. And many streets in Charleston are named after generals in the Confederacy, a treasonous government specifically established through force of arms, and intended to maintain undisturbed the institution of slavery.

Okay, that was harshly put. I’m a Northerner, unpersuaded of the virtues of the Southern cause. I reject the fantasy of a noble South, invaded by Yankee aggressors. I know that the civil war was a catastrophically bloody war, and that Sherman’s march to the see, though tactically brilliant, brutalized an entire region. Robert E. Lee, and J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson were military geniuses of the first order, and their story is surely a tragic one, as none of them were really pro-slavery. Lee fought for Virginia, not for slavery. His tragedy is the political tragedy of federalism run amuck. ‘Virginia,’ that abstraction, is not worth fighting, killing and dying for.

I found this article describing the history of the Confederate flag. It’s pretty straightforward. To say that it’s a traditional symbol of Southern heritage, or Southern pride, or Southern values really isn’t true at all. It was adopted in 1948, by Strom Thurmond, as a rallying symbol for segregationists.  It started flying over courthouses as a symbol of opposition to the Civil Rights movement.

But, of course, symbols mean different things to different people. I don’t think Lynyrd Skynyrd perform in front of a Confederate flag because the band is racist. I think they wrote Sweet Home Alabama in response to what they perceived as Neil Young’s put-down of their state in his song, Alabama. They liked the rebel vibe the flag gave them. I don’t think the Dukes of Hazzard were racist idiots for putting a rebel flag on their car, nor did that TV show intentionally mean to be racist. 6 of 10 white Southerners want to keep the flag; that does not suggest that 6 out of 10 white Southerners are racists. It speaks to regional pride, not the violent suppression of people based on skin tone.

But that’s also not a good enough reason to keep it. I’ll grant you that symbols have slippery meanings. But if a symbol is deeply and personally offensive to one group of people, and is liked by other people out of some sense of fond nostalgia, then weigh those two responses and get rid of the darn thing.

South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, called for the legislature of her state to remove the flag, to debate and vote on the issue (which will require a two thirds majority to pass). But as Larry Willmore pointed out last night, why not just take it down? Why can’t Haley just order the flag removed. Then let the legislative debate be about putting it back up?

And of course, it shouldn’t just come down in South Carolina. Georgia and Mississippi should get rid of theirs too, while they’re at it. Oh, and Virginia? The Virginia flag includes the phrase ‘sic semper tyrannis.’ That’s what Booth shouted after shooting Lincoln. Seriously, do you really want to keep that historical association?

The flags should come down. Put the flag in museums; be done with that symbol of racism and oppression. That needs to happen. It won’t end racism and it won’t end racially motivated violence. Easy access to firearms makes it much too easy for deluded and violent people to act out their most despicable fantasies. Still, any triumph over racism is a step towards progress. Let’s take this small step, at least.

 

A politics primer

A friend of mine sent me a link to her daughter’s blog, and a terrific, funny, smart recent post on that blog. I don’t seem to be able to link to it, but name of the blog is Abundant Recompense, and the post had the title “Why I’m just the Worst at Politics.” It was a coming of age thing, about a young woman learning about politics, and developing her own convictions. I thought I would respond.

Let me start here: politics is about winning elections; policy is about getting things done. Politics and policy are closely aligned, of course–you can’t get your policies passed unless you win elections. But one way to win elections is to paint your opponent as a horrible, horrible human being. That’s why cultural issues–abortion, gay marriage–are so important. If you can convince people that the other side wants to murder babies, you can get them to vote for your side. If you can convince people that the other side wants to prevent all these really nice gay people from being with the people they love, your side might have a better chance of winning. And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that these kinds of social issues are unimportant. But they take on an exaggerated importance in elections, because they’re so emotionally potent.

On Facebook, we see posts all the time that portray either liberals or conservatives (or liberal or conservative candidates) as absolutely horrible human beings. Republicans want big corporations to enslave Americans. Democrats hate America, and want to take everyone’s guns away. None of this is remotely true. George W. Bush was not the village idiot, and Barack Obama is not a terrorist. Republicans and Democrats are patriotic and intelligent people who disagree on questions of policy. That’s the truth of things. Both sides have ideological biases. In general Republicans are skeptical of the ability of the federal government to solve problems. In general, Democrats think lots of problems are amenable to government solutions. Both are sometimes right, and both are sometimes wrong.

In my friend’s blog post, she talks about how she’s regarded as liberal in largely conservative areas of the country, and as a conservative in largely liberal areas. Good for her! But I suspect this is because, again, of the sorts of social issues that each side favors. It’s not remotely difficult for staunch conservatives and die-hard liberals, in their natural habitat, to look a little crazy. (And the most important thing a young politically engaged person needs is, I’m not kidding, a sense of humor).

Anyway. Not all issues break neatly down along ideological grounds. One of the most contentious bills in Congress right now is something called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It’s a big trade bill, involving a treaty between the United States and other countries that border the Pacific ocean. President Obama favors it, and is opposed by many, if not most, members of the Democratic party, including such important liberals as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Republicans, like House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell support it. Strange bedfellows indeed. I’m a liberal Democrat, which means, I guess, that I’m supposed to oppose it. But I’ve learned enough economics over the years to really like free trade; I have some reservations about the bill, but generally I support it, though I’ll admit it’s a tough call. So, from a partisan political perspective, it’s a very weird bill. From a policy perspective, it’s really interesting.

Right now, in my home state of Utah, the toughest issue currently under discussion has to do with the state prison. The current prison is in Draper, just north of point-of-the-mountain, the ridge that demarks the boundary between Utah County and Salt Lake County. When the prison was first built, Draper wasn’t very populous. Now, it’s prime real estate. So those who oppose moving the prison have been casting all sorts of nasty aspersions against those who support moving it. They’re all ‘developers,’ get-rich-quick real estate con men–that’s how they’re portrayed. That’s neither fair, nor accurate, but neither is it entirely inaccurate; the prison is in a prime housing market, and many of the state legislators who want to move it are in the real estate business. But it’s way too easy to portray them as venal and corrupt.

I’ve read a lot about the prison issue, and the facts are clear–the current prison has become inadequate. The main purpose of a prison has to be to help inmates transition to lives as responsible and productive citizens. Recidivism isn’t good for anyone. People make mistakes, even serious mistakes, and if those mistakes rise to the level of criminality, of course they should be caught, tried, incarcerated. But while in stir, they should have educational and vocational opportunities; of course they should. Joseph Smith thought prisons should essentially function as schools; that’s obviously the ideal we should strive for. Utah is very involved in criminal justice reform, and revamping the prison should be an important part of that reform. The current prison just isn’t set up very well for providing for those kinds of reforming efforts.

The problem is, nobody else wants it. NIMBY–Not In My Back Yard. Put a prison close to my house, and watch my property decline in value. No thanks. Utah is certainly well supplied with vast tracts of worthless real estate. But putting the state prison out in the middle of the desert would be a terrible idea. Prisoners need a support system–they need to be able to see their families. The nice thing about the current location is that it’s convenient to the two largest population centers in the state.

So here we have a very contentious political and policy issue, and emotions are running high, but it’s not remotely ideological. It isn’t about ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives.’ Every study shows clearly that the prison needs to be either rebuilt or moved. It’s going to cost a lot of money either way–money the state is willing to pay. But where to put it?

I don’t actually know, and I don’t have any good suggestions. I just say that most of the time, politics is about this kind of issue. Where should we put the new prison? How are we going to repair or rebuild that bridge? How do we properly fund education? What about that new development; how do we zone it? And these are all difficult issues, in part because they require research, expertise, hard thinking and hard study. Which most Americans would rather not bother with. (And doing that research and study is also kind of boring. And that’s a huge problem–we don’t like boring policy studies. Way easier to compare the other guy to Hitler or something).

But here’s the thing: that’s what we really need to do more of. What’s really not needed is more partisan rancor and name calling and false accusations of corruption. What we do need is for smart decent people to take policy seriously enough to do all the hard work of deciding, well, where we should put that prison. I have a son who aspires to do that kind of work. He just finished a master’s degree in public policy. Multiply him times a thousand and we’d be making a good start.

How do we vote? How do we make those hard choices, in the ballot box. May I gently suggest that pretty much every political candidate in pretty much every race, national state and local, has a website. Check ’em out. Vote for the person who makes the most specific, concrete, intelligible proposals. That’s at least a start.

Tomorrowland: Movie Review and commentary

Finally catching up on movies that have been out forever, we saw Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland last night. I think it’s the ‘lost in the shuffle’ big summer movie, the one that just didn’t generate enough buzz to really take off, which is a shame. It’s an energetic and enjoyable flick, and also a seriously intended commentary on contemporary society and politics. In fact, that’s its biggest problem, I think. Bird has something significant to say in this movie, but the vehicle for his message is so pretty and funny and light that the message doesn’t penetrate. Except when it did.

The movie first. A kid, Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), brings an invention to the 1964 World’s Fair, a jet pack, an awesome piece of James Bond-ish technology that has the solitary defect of not working very well. Queried about it by an enigmatic judge figure, Nix (Hugh Laurie), young Frank admits that it’s not a practical invention. It could, however, inspire young people, he insists. Not good enough, says Nix, and leaves, his nine-year-old daughter, Athena (Raffey Cassidy) accompanying him. But Athena gestures for Frank to join them, and he does, ending up in Tomorrowland, a magic world of amazing technology, like Epcot Center on steroids.

Cut to the future, and we meet a teenaged girl, Casey (Britt Robertson), about to commit an act of sabotage. It’s the future (or our present?), and the NASA launch pad at Cape Canaveral is scheduled for demolition. Casey, a plucky optimist and science freak, thinks this is unconscionable, and zips around on her motorcycle, frying the controls of the demolition equipment. This leads to fights with her father (Tim McGraw), a soon-to-be-unemployed NASA engineer. But we sense how much father and daughter (and also her younger brother (Pierce Gagnon) care about each other. And in their conversation, the ruling metaphor of the film finds its first expression. The human spirit is likened to two wolves: one, positive, optimistic, kind, the other selfish, fearful, negative. Which one will survive? The one we feed.

Okay, so Casey is caught and arrested, and Dad makes bail, but in her effects, she finds something that’s not hers; a pin with a T on it. And she discovers that when she touches the pin, she’s transported to a wheat field outside a magical city, the same techno-paradise that young Frank saw in the earlier scenes. But the pin has a time limit, and when hers expires, she returns to her reality. Obviously, the next step is an internet search for that pin, which leads her to a curios shop in Texas, run by the amusingly menacing couple, Ursula (Kathryn Hahn) and Hugo (Keegan-Michael Key). When Casey won’t tell them where she got the pin, they pull out space age blasters, and start shooting. She’s rescued, however, by little Athena, aged not a day from her earlier iteration, but now with mad martial arts skills. Athena then sends Casey to the home of a world-weary recluse, Frank, now played by George Clooney.

The world, it seems, is on the brink of destruction. Climate change, political instability, ethnic hatreds, all are leading us to destruction. We have about two months left. But old Frank sees something on his various monitors that tell him that the world might still be salvageable, because of this girl, Casey, because of her optimism and courage. And so he takes her with him to Tomorrowland. He takes her to, in other words, a technologically advanced society living in a parallel universe to earth, run by, yes, Nix, Athena’s putative father (who also hasn’t aged).

And amidst their various struggles, Nix gives a speech. Seeing the end of the world rapidly approaching, he decided to send a signal from his world to ours, showing precisely what would happen if we all continued in our current course. He thought the warning would wake us up. He thought we’d change our ways. He thought we’d all figure out what we were doing wrong and make the political and cultural changes that would hold destruction at bay. He thought the human capacity for innovation and invention would prevail, that we’d allow it to prevail. But in fact, he ‘fed the wrong wolf.’ We embraced nihilism. We embraced various visions of dystopia. We fetishized it, in pop culture, in movies and television and video games. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss: we’ve accelerated our headlong rush to oblivion. And he doesn’t see a lot of reason to stop sending that signal. He warned us. We don’t seem to care. Let us blow ourselves up.

What can we do? Well, we can blow up that signal, and Clooney and Laurie can scrap a bit, finally Casey wins, and with Frank’s aid, she createss a whole bunch more Tomorrowland pins, which she distributes, which I read as ‘recruit forward-thinking optimists and get things solved.’ The ending of the movie really was genuinely moving and inspiring. I mean, yes, in part, the movie is arguing for a Disney-esque vision for mankind, and asks us to reject the values of the other big box office movie released the same week, the new Mad Max. It’s Disney asking us all to adopt Disney values. (And reject worldly nihilistic values). It’s Disney Corp. saying only Disney can save us. See what I did there? Used a positive family-values movie to feed my inner cynic?

But in fact, Nix is right. I know, he gives a pretentious and didactic bad-guy-monologuing nihilist speech at the end of a fun fantasy adventure movie, and I’m probably taking that speech way too seriously. But he is right. He accuses mankind of short-sightedness, laziness, selfishness and complacency, and he basically gets us right. Doesn’t he?

I mean, I live in Provo, Utah. A nice little town, maybe 100, 000 contented souls. And it’s a town built on the suburban model. It’s all single-residence homes, grass yards, transportation needs filled by cars. It’s an ecological disaster. Hardly any mass transit, which one of the most contentious local political issues involves expanding. If global warming is raised as an issue at all, it’s in the context of disputing whether or not the science can be trusted.

We should probably change. We should increase buses, add more rail options, move into apartments, retire our cars. (I live with my wife and daughter–we own three cars between us). We should make massive cultural and lifestyle changes in an effort to stave off global warming. And we’re not going to. We don’t want to. I don’t want to. Run for public office on a ‘radically downsize society, or we’re doomed’ platform. You’d get, what, 1% of the vote? Less?

It’s easier to amuse ourselves with dystopias. It’s easier to comfortably embrace nihilism. Yes, global warming, how very dreadful. Gonna be tough on our grandkids. But, hey, they’ll figure something out.

I found Tomorrowland . . . unsettling, in a way that’s peculiarly at odds with its colorful and fast-paced fantasy storytelling. I liked Clooney, liked the child actress Cassidy, really liked Robertson. But Hugh Laurie ended up costing me sleep. Brad Bird is a visual stylist of the first order. But he’s also a bright guy, with something to say. We should probably all pay more attention.

But we’re not going to. It’s too much trouble.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership

We’re so used to seeing American politics through the distorted lens of partisanship that it’s often pretty easy to figure out what our position should be on most major issues. I’m a liberal Democrat–that’s a nice shorthand. I’m obviously anti-gun, pro-choice, anti-death penalty, pro-marriage equality, against tax cuts for rich guys, in favor of food stamps and welfare for poor people. Neat and tidy.

Which is what makes the controversy over the Trans-Pacific Partnership so interesting. It’s a big free trade bill, supported by President Obama, opposed by Elizabeth Warren (yay!), Bernie Sanders, and what’s generally regarded as the liberal wing of the Democratic party. It’s supported by Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, a pro-business (boo!) Republican (boo!!!!).

Here’s the thing: I’ll put my credentials as a liberal and a Democrat up against anyone’s. And I’m for the TPP. I support it. I think it’s a good thing. I think the Senate should ratify it. (And they’re expected to do just that, this week, with more support from Republicans than from Democrats).

What is it? It’s a trade agreement among nations that border the Pacific ocean. From right to left, that means the US, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, and Japan. The bill will lower trade barriers, reducing tariffs on all sorts of things, including textiles. Also rice. It’ll also require countries to enact stricter environmental and labor protections, and lots more. Vox.com has a nice summary.

Criticism of the bill has tended to focus on three areas. First, the President was negotiated in secret, and the specifics of its provisions aren’t available to the Senators who have to vote on it. Second, the President wants it fast-tracked. In other words, he wants an up-or-down vote, without the possibility of any Senators amending it. Third, labor groups believe that it will cost American jobs. Under those concerns is this one: the bill is perceived as pro-corporation. It will be lucrative for certain big companies, possibly to the detriment of American workers.

Here’s why I support it. First of all: free trade. I like free trade. Most economists like free trade. Ending trade barriers is a good thing. Because trade is good. Business is good.

In an archeological dig in a small fjord in Norway, archeologists found, of all things, a beautifully made Buddha statue. It dates from the 9th century CE. Think about that. Somehow, a Viking village ended up with an artifact that has to have originated in India. Wouldn’t you love to know that story, how a Buddha statue ended up all the way up north like that? Isn’t that remarkable?

I’ll grant that the story that statue might tell wouldn’t necessarily be about trade. Not entirely. My Viking ancestors were, to be blunt, not always known for, you know, paying for the cool things they ended up owning. Still, all across the world, throughout history, goods have passed from hand to hand, town to town, culture to culture. And all the people on the planet have benefited overall.

I don’t like protectionism. I don’t like harsh tariffs and restrictions on the free movement of goods and services. It is quite likely that some American jobs will be lost if TPP passes. But far more jobs will be created. The difficulty is that people who oppose the bill can point quite specifically to areas where those job losses will occur. It’s less easy to point as directly to areas where other jobs will be created, to offset those losses. But that’s what will happen. That’s what always happens when trade barriers are lowered.

Will this bill increase the sum total of human misery? Will it lead to more sweat shops making Nike shoes and Old Navy clothes? Will it lead to more child laborers exploited by unscrupulous middle men? Yes, that will all happen. Absolutely. I wish that weren’t true (and the bill does have provisions to reduce that kind of action). But yes, that will all happen. 98% of all the clothes sold in retail stores in America are made overseas, using methods that we regard as unsavory. Do I defend that? Do I defend Wal-Mart and the Gap reducing their inventory costs on the backs of foreign children?

Yes, I do. Because in poor countries, those jobs are prized. I would much rather have Vietnamese children making Nike sneakers in a factory than starving, or being forced, by economic necessity, into prostitution. Poor kids in poor countries don’t have a lot of choices in life. And I know it seems hard-hearted for economists to defend the kinds of practices that make for such juicy news exposes by saying ‘well, free trade is a good thing.’ But it is, ultimately. Ultimately, it really will reduce human suffering, overall, given the alternatives.

Should this bill be fast-tracked? Shouldn’t the Senate be given the opportunity to propose and even pass amendments to it? No, absolutely not. Elizabeth Warren is dead wrong about this. This isn’t just a normal Senate bill. It’s an international trade agreement, negotiated, over many years, by representatives from 12 nations. If the Senate were to propose any amendments at all, those would then have to be completely renegotiated by all those nations. We have to pass it as is. And should.

The other criticism of this bill is that it will benefit certain huge multi-national corporations. And that’s also true; it will. Speaking as a liberal Democrat, though, let me say this: we’re not opposed to corporations. We’re not against big business. We’re against big businesses that misbehave. Elizabeth Warren has done a lot of good pointing out the excesses of big banks, of Wall Street equity firms and too-big-to-fail financial institutions. But that doesn’t mean that we liberal democrats are against banks, or against Wall Street.

I like rules. I like regulations and I like to see government enforce those regulations. But those regulations can’t make it impossible for businesses to operate profitably. Profits are good. Successful people and successful businesses are good for our culture, for our nation, for the world.

So, yes, I’m with President Obama here, and with Senator McConnell. Elizabeth Warren is an admirable Senator, and when she’s right about something, I’ll offer her my full support. She’s wrong about the TPP.  Enough details about it are known to be able to make a judgment. And I’m for it.

A response to Ralph Hancock

The opinion page of the Deseret News has published a number of op-ed pieces lately opposing same sex marriage. The most recent was by Ralph Hancock, a very respected conservative scholar, a professor at BYU, with a degree in political science from Harvard and a distinguished publication record. I thought, with some trepidation, that I would write a piece disagreeing with his article. I certainly don’t have credentials to match his; as I’ve said many times on this blog, I’m basically a playwright with wifi. But I do have a PhD, and I thought someone ought to respond. I suggest you read Hancock’s article first: here’s the link.

Hancock begins rather oddly, with the Enlightenment:

When the aggressively secular philosophers of the 18th century realized that simple logic could not actually refute traditional ideas of God or of a Higher Good, they settled on a strategy that did not depend too much on reason: the public would have to be moved by passions and appetites to reject traditional authority, and the rational appeal of transcendent goods would have to be neutralized by a relentless campaign of ridicule conducted by a unified army of prominent writers. Haughty contempt, aided by wit and literary talent, would suffice to intimidate traditionalists and thus supply the defect of truly conclusive reasoning.

Apparently, Hancock thinks the Enlightenment philosophers were all in on the plan, including the deliberate use of satire. Well, Voltaire wrote satire; so did Jonathan Swift. And it’s certainly true that the writers of the Enlightenment used a variety of approaches; journalism, poetry, drama, essays, novels. But mostly, they wrote long, dense books of moral and political philosophy, in which they disagreed with each other all the time. You can see what Hancock’s doing here; he’s suggesting that those attacking ‘traditional authority’ realized that the tools of philosophy and reason weren’t sufficient to get the job done. They resorted to snark and sentimentality, because they knew how weak their case was. But that’s just nonsense. Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Locke, Hume, Spinoza, Leibniz were perfectly confident in their ability to reason their way to truth, and did precisely that, book after book. There’s a reason they won.

But, hang on. Did you see what he’s doing? He’s choosing sides, and placing himself on the side of ‘traditional authority,’ and ‘traditional ideas of God or a Higher Good,’ against the Enlightenment. And among the major Enlightenment figures he opposes would surely have to be Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Thomas Paine. And let’s face it, he has to do this; if there’s one thing the Founders had in common, it was an opposition to traditional authorities. That was the point of the Revolution, to reject the authority of King and Crown. (And wouldn’t we add Joseph Smith to the list of prominent thinkers who rejected ‘traditional ideas of God?’)

But of course Hancock pretty much has to do this–take sides against the Founders. After our central founding document included the phrase “all men are created equal,” our subsequent history unfolded uneasily around that idea, of equality. Well, his article is in opposition to marriage equality. Equality, therefore, becomes the main idea against which he’s forced to argue. And Jefferson’s phrase planted a seed, leading eventually to abolitionism and Lincoln’s election and a horrific Civil War, and to three Constitutional amendments, the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth. The most important of them, it turns out, was the fourteenth. That amendment, and the subsequent history of Reconstruction and Jim Crow and Brown v. Board and the Civil Rights movement, all centered on something as simple as the redefinition of a word: Negro. Was a Negro a man “with no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” as the Dred Scott decision put it, or was he a citizen of the United States, with all the privileges and responsibilities of any other citizen? Over a hundred years of tortured history later, that word, ‘equality,’ prevailed. The word Negro was redefined, and although we still have a long way to go, the fundamental humanity and, legally, the full citizenship of black Americans is today affirmed.

The case currently before the Supreme Court, Obergefell v. Hodges, is a Fourteenth Amendment case. It’s an equality case. Opposing it, therefore, either means opposing the Fourteenth Amendment, or it means opposing the application of that amendment to the current controversy. Hancock, oddly, chooses a third route. He focuses on the issue of dignity, and the supposed desire of people to have their sexual preferences accorded dignity and respect, and he accuses those who support same sex marriage of, essentially, sentimentalizing the issue. That’s his perception; it’s not mine, and it seems irrelevant to the actual issues addressed in the case itself. By choosing to ally himself with tradition, with traditional formulations of marriage, Hancock, in this article, comes across a bit like Tevye, stomping the ground and shouting about Tradition, while his uppity, independent (and beloved) daughters each insist on their right to marry who they choose, not the guy Papa picks. And tradition itself is like someone trying to stand on a roof and play the fiddle. It’s precarious up there, and unsteady. Hancock might respond that Tevye’s daughters sentimentally want their personal romantic preferences accorded dignity, a trivial consideration. But they know their own hearts best. Tradition is what’s failing them.

Although he doesn’t use this phrase, Hancock wants to argue for ‘traditional marriage,’ for marriage based on a ‘shared moral understanding.’ But that’s an ever-shifting foundation. Traditionally, marriage wasn’t really between a man and a woman, but between a citizen and his female property. If we define ‘woman’ as an ‘autonomous equal to men,’ as a fully participating citizen–as equal–then marriage as we understand it is a relatively new invention. But one that recognized that the ‘shared moral understanding’ of what constituted women’s rights and roles had shifted, evolved. And a good thing too.

But there’s another sense in which the phrase ‘the traditional definition of marriage’ is inadequate. There really isn’t ‘the’ definition of marriage, but as many definitions as there are marriage partners. Abigail Adams may not have been her husband’s legal equal, but their letters have survived, and it’s clear that she carved out a space in her society for every bit as much equality as she could possibly achieve. Nor was Dolley Madison any kind of shrinking violet. They may have represented something close to one extreme of 18th century female equality, one towards which society was slowly shifting. The other extreme of inequality was quite probably represented by the odd and creepy relationship of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, a woman with no rights her white master was bound to respect.

So marriage has constantly been redefined, as other related words have been; ‘woman’, ‘black,’ ‘wife,’ ‘servant,’ ‘citizen.’ And individual marriages are under a constant process of negotiation and redefinition. And the whole process has always been informed by society’s ever evolving understanding of Jefferson’s phrase, of what ‘created equal’ means. And even that ancient racist obsession, over miscegenation, became, in Loving v. Virginia, redefined as, well, just ‘marriage.’ Two citizens exercising the fundamental human right to choose to commit their lives together, something normal and good. And our societal understanding of ‘equality’ evolved yet again.

And so the latest word to be productively redefined is before us: ‘homosexual.’ And, of course, traditionally, homosexual meant citizenship and equality only as far as it was kept strictly closeted. Otherwise, homosexual meant an outcast, a pervert, a degenerate, a deviant. And it was legal to fire gay men and women, legal to arrest people for the crime of displaying public affection, legal to deny housing or access to public facilities.

Hancock does not really clarify his main argument against gay marriage. Here’s his best attempt:

At its core is another understanding of human dignity, one that embeds individual dignity within shared communal goods and responsibilities. It is this more traditional understanding of dignity, and not an absolute power of human self-definition, that still resonates in the idea of liberty under “the laws of nature and nature’s God.”

Honestly, this describes pretty well exactly what our gay brothers and sisters want; to exercise their rights and obligations as citizens, to join in ‘shared communal goods and responsibilities.’ And human dignity thrives under the presumption of equality.

The key, I think, to understanding Hancock’s argument is the phrase he cribbed from, again, Jefferson: ‘laws of nature and nature’s God.’ He seems to be arguing that the lifestyle of gay people so offends the laws of nature and of God that it disqualifies them from full participation in civil society. And he seems to regard this as a widely shared understanding. Or, I suppose, as what would be a widely shared understanding if people could just reason more clearly. But he’s savvy enough to know that he can’t quite put it that way, lest he prove that he’s driven by enmity to gay people. But it does appear that he wants to retain the traditional definition of ‘homosexual.’ And thereby deny gay people equality. If you’re gay, Hancock suggests, you’re not actually created equal. You’re created: Other. But that’s my reading of a confused mess of a paragraph.

There is another approach he might have taken, the preferred tactic of the Obergefell respondents. Essentially it’s this; to demonstrate through the social sciences that children do better if they’re raised by two straight parents. To essentially ask gay people to take one for the team, to stop arguing for marriage for the greater good of children in society. The Obergefell respondents found themselves arguing that a preferred outcome might be to say that marriage is about child-rearing, and gay couples aren’t as good at it as straight couples are, so what if we just let straight couples raise all the kids. In fact, the best evidence suggests no such idea; kids do best with two committed parents, no matter their orientation, according to the various studies cited by the plaintiffs in the case. (The respondents cited no competing studies). And current marriage laws don’t require that prospective couples demonstrate the ability to procreate, rendering reproductive viability moot. Professor Hancock deserves credit for not wandering down that thorny path.

What Hancock does address is, essentially, a side issue; the question of dignity, the question of how people feel, and how nice people are to them. That’s not relevant. Obergefell is a case about equality before the law. Either gay people are citizens or they’re not. Issues of religion, or of dignity, or the Higher Good are not really relevant. For those who want to argue against the full equality and citizenship of our gay brothers and sisters, then let me suggest that they’ll need a stronger argument than the ones that have so far been advanced, including Hancock’s.

Dr. Ben

Dr. Ben Carson announced his candidacy for President earlier this week, and I feel kind of bad about it. Dr. Carson is a retired pediatric neuro-surgeon. He’s from Detroit, oldest kid in a dirt-poor family, raised by a remarkable single Mom. Went to Yale, then the University of Michigan Medical school. After a residency at Johns Hopkins, he began practicing there, and became, at 33, head of pediatric neurosurgery there. He’s a pioneer in a number of surgical techniques. He’s also a fine author, with six published books, mostly about his own auto-biography and his philosophy of success, which can basically be summed up as ‘work hard, and have faith.’ He’s a devout Christian, and a dedicated family man.

And he’s a conservative African-American. And he came to prominence following a speech on Feb. 7, 2013, when he was invited to speak at a White House prayer breakfast, and turned it into a hard-right political speech. Since President Obama was there, Carson’s speech was interpreted as ‘courageous independent speaks truth to power,’ and went viral. Since that time, he’s been a popular conservative speaker, and kind of a darling of the Tea Party right.

He’s an admirable guy. I applaud his success. And I don’t think that someone who has never held political office should be banned from running for President. Not at all. If he can convince enough people to vote for him, he’ll win. No one can question his intelligence, work ethic, or his patriotism. Polls show him doing surprisingly well among likely Republican voters. He’s raised a lot of money, in small increments, suggesting the strength of his grass roots support. Here’s a website supporting his candidacy, which includes a link to his fund raising page.

So why do I feel bad about him running? Well, for one thing, he’s not going to win, and if he won the nomination, he would lose the general election badly. He really only distinguishes himself from the hard core conservative right on a few issues. He calls the US invasion of Afghanistan a mistake, though he hasn’t been clear about what he would have done regarding foreign policy in the wake of 9/11. I actually think he’s right on that issue, so good for him. He’s pretty extreme on the big social issues–opposes gay marriage, opposes all forms of gun control, opposes Obamacare, radical on abortion rights–but predictable on economic issues. He supports a flat tax. He supports school choice. On all those issues, he’s way to the right of the general electorate, but in the mainstream of the Tea Party.

But that’s not why he’s going to lose. To tell why he’s going to lose, let me tell a Karl Malone story. I remember when Karl was close to retirement, he was asked what he wanted to do with his life. And he said he wanted to get into acting, become an action hero.

I thought Karl Malone was one of the greatest basketball players who ever played the game. Strong and athletic and powerful and smart, a great shooter and rebounder and defender, he worked hard for 18 years, and had a brilliant career. And I’m sure he thought; ‘action hero; it’s all about physicality and athleticism. I could do that.’ And it would have been the way to stay in the limelight, which he’d gotten used to, and make a lot of money, which he’d gotten even more used to. And he got a screen test.

But acting is really hard. Acting on a sound stage, in front of a green screen, is incredibly difficult, requiring imagination and focus and all the other skills actors develop through years of training and talent.

Most people in life don’t get to be good at multiple things. Ted Williams, the old Red Sox star, was a terrific combat pilot, in addition to being a great baseball player. Later, after he retired, he became an award winning commercial fisherman. I remember commentary about him, how rare it was to be one of the best in the world at three separate things. But he worked hard, and was a unique talent, plus all three skills required other-worldly hand-eye coordination. So he pulled it off. But it was the height of arrogance for Karl Malone to assume that being good at basketball meant he could be just as good at acting.

So it is with Ben Carson. Running for elected office is a difficult thing to do. It requires certain skills, and those skills need to be refined and developed over time. It was interesting for me to watch Mitt Romney run for President. By his third campaign, he’d gotten pretty good at it. But it took awhile, and, as it happened, the guy he was running against was better at it than he was. That’s not surprising.

I think Dr. Ben Carson is an admirable guy. He’s running, and he’s going to lose badly, and I”m very much afraid he’s going to make a fool of himself. And I think that’s a shame.

 

 

Another attack on standardized testing, and a history

I know, I know, I’ve written enough about standardized testing. It’s May, Spring, time for the thoughts of young people to turn to love and who they’re going to take to prom. And also time for every kid in America to take a whole bunch of government mandated multiple guess tests. Which means time for yet another rant from me.

Jon Oliver did a funny bit on testing last night, pointing out the ridiculous lengths to which the education establishment is going to sell testing, including videos based on popular songs. I’ll link to his show later. Meanwhile, larger and larger numbers of parents are opting their kids out of testing. Good for them! Opt out! Or, kids, there’s no law that says you have to test honestly. Flunk ’em on purpose! Anything to invalidate already invalid results.

Educational mandated testing is to me the rarest of government policies. It’s a bi-partisan failure–President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative is as poorly conceived and foolish as President Bush’s No Child Left Behind. It’s also a policy that does nothing but fail. It has no positives; there’s nothing, absolutely nothing positive that can be said about it. It generates wholly bogus data, which is then used to implement entirely punitive and ineffective responses. It doesn’t work, and never has. And never will. You want to improve education in America? Step one: get rid of all standardized tests administered to children. Federal, state or local; get rid of all of them. Step two: fire anyone who works in education who favors test-based reform. Start there, and then let’s talk about what might work. Doubling teacher salaries would be a nice start.

So, no, I’m not a fan of testing. But the reason I hate testing, the reason I have such a bone-deep, utter detestation of it, is far more personal. You see, I was a SCAP kid. I was a six-year SCAPPIE.

1969. The summer of love. The year of the moon landing. The Beatles put out Abbey Road, and John and Yoko were married, Led Zeppelin put our their first album, Charlie Manson was arrested, and Rupert Murdoch bought his first London newspaper. And I started 7th grade. I entered Binford Jr. High School, in Bloomington Indiana. And the first thing we did, was take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, required for all new students that year, and most especially for those enrolled in SCAP.

The official name of the program was Secondary Continuous Advancement Program. SCAP. The idea was that learning should be fluid and continuous, cross-disciplinary and tailored to the advancement of each individual student. I remember, in Geometry, for example, we learned formulas and equations, but we were also told to create works of art; we were supposed to create really pretty geometric forms, and graded on our aesthetic achievements in that regard. I remember making this really awesome looking flattened oval thing. I thought it was great. It failed, because, said the teacher, it wasn’t complicated enough. His aesthetic was baroque; mine, neo-classical. For that, I got an F?

The key was testing. Lots and lots of testing. And we weren’t graded according to how well we mastered the material; we were graded according to how well we did as compared to how well we were supposed to do, based on the tests we’d taken.

When I was in college, I took a basketball class. I had played basketball for hours every day of my life, growing up. I figured ‘easy A’. On the first day of class, we had a shooting test; we had to take 30 shots from different spots on the floor. I got red hot, and hit 28. Then I learned that we’d have to take the same test at the end of the semester, and that our grade depended on how well we improved. Which is how I flunked basketball my freshman year of college.

So it was with SCAP. I was a voracious reader as a kid. Read most of Dickens in fifth grade. And I’ve always been good at taking standardized tests, a completely useless skill, not widely shared, except my kids have it too. They all test really well. Anyway, I remember taking a spelling test. There were 40 words on the test; I spelled 38 of them correctly. And I got a D.

A D. On a spelling test. And I happened to look over at the test sheet for the kid in the desk next to mine. He’d gotten 29 words right on the exact same spelling test. And he’d gotten an A. A for him, D for me, on the same test. Even though I’d only missed 2 words, and he’d missed 11.

And I stared at his paper. And I thought, ‘it’s true. I’m not making it up; it’s really true. They really are out to get me. The teachers at this school, they genuinely don’t like me, they actually do have it in for me. I’m not being paranoid. Here’s proof. It’s real, and it’s personal. And there’s nothing I can do about it.’

I was a weird kid anyway. I was tall and skinny and awkward. I had a nerdy vocabulary, and I tripped and fell down a lot. I got beat up all the time; I was just used to it. But I’d always gotten along pretty well with teachers. But that spelling test, that was a turning point. Suddenly I knew, with absolutely incontrovertible evidence, that teachers hated me too. That everyone, literally everyone, was out to get me. 2 wrong: D, for me. 11 wrong: A, for him. You can’t make it clearer.

Of course, now I know that it was just SCAP. That’s how SCAP worked. I’d gotten a D on that spelling quiz, because my test scores indicated that I should have been better at spelling than the other kid. I was a reader; I shouldn’t have missed those 2 words. My teachers didn’t hate me; they were trying to challenge me. But no one explained any of that to me, and if they had tried, I wouldn’t have listened. What I did was just quit. I just didn’t bother with school work, at all, ever, in any class, from that day on. I withdrew. Instead, I wrote stories. I day dreamed. I snuck books in and read on my own. And at lunch, I’d play 4-square, unless Jeff Tate and Eddie Deckard caught me; then I just got beat up again. Did I ever turn them in? Of course not. Tell a teacher? Why should I tell a teacher anything, ever? They hated me too. And I could prove it.

Google SCAP nowadays, and you get the Security Content Automation Protocol. Or a French car manufacturer. But the basic idea of SCAP lives on. Test kids, use the data to create curricula. Challenge kids, again based on data derived from testing. Okay, I don’t think anyone nowadays teaches geometry using aesthetic criteria. But I look at modern education reform, and I think: it’s SCAP. It’s all just more SCAP. And we’re making modern kids SCAPgoats. (Okay, sorry).

And it makes me sick. It’s damaging. It’s bad teaching. It doesn’t work, and will never work. Teaching is an art form, not a science. It’s humanism writ large. Modern education reform wants ‘good teaching,’ but with all actual human interactions removed. But teaching is, above all else, love. Get rid of every test ever created, and figure out how to love. And maybe then we’ll get somewhere.

Here’s John Oliver. (Language warnings.)

 

Defining marriage

I want to say something right upfront: I absolve my brother of the responsibility of marrying my wife if I should happen to die before she does. I don’t think his wife would like him marrying her very much, and I know my wife doesn’t want to move to Arizona. I know what the Bible says on the subject, and I’m just saying, we’re not going to worry about it. He’s off the hook, as far as I’m concerned. My wife has a job in Utah, one she likes and is very good at. She’d just as soon stay put. So if I die first, bro, you don’t have to marry and care for your brother’s widow, the Bible notwithstanding. She’ll be fine.

Reading the oral arguments this last week in the case of Obergefell v Hodges, the gay marriage-defining case before the Supreme Court, one thing became clear; this is a case the Justices are taking very seriously. As Justice Scalia pointed out, “you’re asking us to decide it (same-sex marriage) when no other society until 2001 had it.” And Chief Justice Roberts made the same point, that theirs was a weighty responsibility. And it is. Marriage is the single most important social institution in all of human culture. I’m completely and entirely pro-marriage. Let’s get that out of the way too; this is not about being ‘for marriage’ or ‘against marriage.’

Several of the justices seemed to have done a lot of reading about marriage and its history. And they, quite correctly, pointed out that essentially all cultures had defined marriage as an institution between men and women; that no societies, prior to ours, had included, in their marriage customs, a relationship between two men, or between two women.

But then the venerable RBG, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, made this essential point in the entire argument:

But you wouldn’t be asking for this relief if the law of marriage was what it was a millennium ago. I mean, it wasn’t possible. Same-sex unions would not have opted into the pattern of marriage, which was a relationship, a dominant and a subordinate relationship. Yes, it was a relationship between a man and a woman, but the man decided where the couple would be domiciled; it was her obligation to follow him. There was a change in the relationship of marriage to make it egalitarian when it wasn’t egalitarian. And same-sex unions wouldn’t fit into what it was then.

Exactly. Marriage wasn’t so much between a man and a woman, as it was between a citizen and his property. It certainly wasn’t between a man and a “woman,” if we define “woman” as “autonomous equal,” or as “biologically different, but legally equalivalent.”

And “homosexual” didn’t mean the same thing then that it means today. In most societies, throughout most of history, “homosexual” meant “deviant.” It was defined by  words like “pervert,” “criminal,” “outcast.” It meant “subhuman.” Gay men had rights, but not as a gay person; they had rights only to the extent that they remained in the closet. Gay people have historically been persecuted, tortured, abused, rejected, reviled. Executed. The idea of codifying gay marriage or same sex marriage was completely unthinkable, most places, most times. That remains true in much of the world today. In much of the world, gay people live, quite literally, under a perpetual sentence of death. But in Western society, things have changed, and you’d have to be some kind of monster not to see those changes as wonderfully positive.

So when people talk about ‘traditional marriage,’ or ‘biblical marriage,’ they’re talking about an institution that absolutely nobody in modern Western society would want to reinstate. I don’t want to live in a world where women can’t own property, or vote, or manage their own affairs. I have no interest in living in a marriage that’s not defined in terms of equality. And when I work with gay colleagues, I don’t think of them as ‘gay colleagues.’ I think of them as co-workers, as friends, as designers or stage managers or actors. And I wouldn’t want it any other way, nor would anyone else. Redefining ‘gay’ has been a wonderful thing for society, just redefining marriage in more egalitarian ways has been a wonderful thing for society. Feminism rules. Equality rocks.

Besides, when we talk about ‘defining marriage,’ we’re talking about something that married couples do all the time, individually. We divide up chores, we figure out how we’re going to resolve differences, we work out a schedule, we talk and joke and sing and, at times, quarrel. ‘Defining marriage’ is a constant work in progress, full of compromises and long conversations and routines and traditions.

And, of course, some marriages are horrible. Some marriages are ‘defined’ by infidelity, or violence, or selfishness, or viciousness. Or passive-aggressive resentment. And some marriages don’t work at all, and end. And should end. And I suppose divorce is a bad thing–it’s often condemned from the pulpit, certainly. But I have known many people who have gotten divorced, and based on what I knew about those marriages, I can’t think of a single time when I didn’t think the divorce was a good thing, and completely justified. If being together makes one or both spouses completely miserably unhappy, ending it may be a kindness. I would point out as well that in most homicides, the cops look at the spouse first.

Will gay marriage change any of that? No, of course not. Gay couples quarrel, gay couples cheat, gay people are human beings, with the same propensity for bad behavior of any other people. And so what? They’re asking for equality.

John Bursch, attorney for the respondents, made what I thought was the single silliest argument in the whole court session. If gay people are allowed to marry, he said, then it will provide a disincentive for straight men, who have fathered a child, to marry the child’s mother, because a gay couple might be willing to adopt that child. First of all, there are plenty of unwanted children in need of stable, welcoming homes. And besides, people don’t make decisions as important as marriage based on Supreme Court decisions. People decide to marry, mostly, because they’re in love.

Of course, court-watchers love to parse the oral arguments of any case to see which way the Justices might be leaning. I think, though, that it’s going to go 5-4, and could easily be 6-3, if Roberts decides he wants to write for the majority. It’s been a long battle, but it’s close to over. And marriage, as an institution, will survive just fine.