Charlie’s marriage

I wouldn’t say that the news ‘broke’ the internet, but it certainly put a nasty dent in it: Charles Manson has applied for a marriage license. Charlie Manson, age 80. Announcing his ‘engagement’ to one Afton Elaine Burton, age 26, who now goes by the name ‘Star,’ considers herself already married to him, and maintains a website insisting on his innocence. (Which I will NOT link to–I’m not driving traffic to Charlie freaking Manson’s site). Burton’s Mom, by the way, is fine with it. Says the couple shares a commitment to environmentalism. Grantland’s Molly Lambert’s story about it can’t really be improved on; see the link for details.

What’s interesting to me about this is the way in which Charlie Manson still does have the capacity to capture our attention. This was big news. And, as always with Manson, we read it with a little frisson of oh-so-delicious fear. Charles Manson, the most mesmeric, the most charismatic, the most Satanic human being on earth, was up to his old tricks once again. Fascinating young people (mostly young women); bending them to his will.

Remember the watch thing? Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who put Manson away, wrote a best-selling book about it, Helter Skelter. In the book, he describes a time when Manson stopped his watch by just staring at it. In the first Helter Skelter made-for-TV-movie, the 1976 one with Steve Railsback as Manson, George DiCenzo (as Bugliosi) notices his watch has stopped, looks over at Manson, and we see Railsback give him a creepy grin. So that’s part of the lore; Charlie Manson can make a watch stop.

Of course, he couldn’t. Bugliosi’s book is very compelling, but its hero is Bugliosi; the courageous prosecutor who put Charlie Manson away, and the more evil and Satanic Manson was, the greater Bugliosi’s triumph over him. I don’t much trust it. I rather suspect that if Charlie Manson had the ability to stop watches, he would also have had the ability to open prison doors. But what he did have was a kind of crazed charisma. He persuaded a group of lost runaway hippie kids (most of them girls) to form a ‘Family’ and commit horrible atrocities, and he persuaded Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys to fund ‘Family’ activities for months. He’s regarded as one of the worst mass murderers in history, and he never actually personally killed anyone. Not for lack of trying; the Family’s first victim, Bernard Crowe, was shot by Manson in Crowe’s apartment in June of ’69, two months before the Sharon Tate killings. But Crowe survived.

And then, on August 9th, 1969, Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel murdered Sharon Tate and four other guests in her home, and also a delivery guy, on Manson’s orders. The next night, joined by Manson himself, and with two other Family members, Leslie Van Houten and Clem Grogan, the same four murdered Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, in their home. Manson directed the killings, but did not kill himself. Several subsequent killings have been linked to Manson’s Family members. And in 1975, Manson Family member Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme tried to murder Gerald Ford, the President of the United States.

Fromme’s attempt took place in Sacramento. She and Sandra Good had moved there to be closer to Manson while he served out his sentence at Folsom Prison. In 1987, Fromme escaped from prison in West Virginia. She was apprehended within a few days, as she headed west, towards California. She wanted to be close to Charlie, who she heard was suffering from cancer. This is also typical of Manson Family members; even while incarcerated, they seem to crave physical closeness to their prophet/guru. Afton “Star” Burton has also moved, to Corcoran California, out in the desert, so she can be ‘closer to Charlie.’  Sandra Good maintains a pro-Charlie website, which competes with Burton’s.

And we’ve never lost our fascination with this guy, this career criminal, failed musician, this man who seems to have had one great gift in life, the ability to attract young women to believe in him, and at times, to kill for him. Two made-for-TV movies. Several documentaries. Several major TV interviews, with Diane Sawyer, Tom Snyder, Charlie Rose, Geraldo Rivera, Ron Reagan Jr.

The myth of the sixties’ counter-culture was a myth of innocence, a myth of invincible virtue, opposing Establishment Evil. Hippies were peaceful idealists, devoted to non-violent protest and positive world-change. Hippies stopped the war in Vietnam, ended racism, fought the good fight against ‘the man.’ It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. “Go ahead and hate your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend,” Coven sang, describing, see, the Establishment’s hypocrisy, embellishing the irony with achingly pure intentions and ferocious self-righteousness–“one tin soldier rides away”; the song punctuated the message of peace-lovin’ martial artist Billy Jack.  Nick Lowe asked, with aching sincerity, what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding. Punk answered back, always more honest; Lowe’s song was bitterly deconstructed by Elvis Costello.  (Elvis: the King of Rock and Roll. Costello: half of the comedy duo who asked Who’s On First. Even his name functioned as satire).

Charlie Manson did us this one great favor: he showed us the lie at the heart of hippie idealism and blissed out mellow. Teenage runaways, escaping the dreariness of square middle-class hypocrisy, crowding the streets of Haight-Ashbury, could easily fall for predators. Hippies could, turns out, kill. So could drugs. So could casual sex. And so could rock and roll, as Dennis Wilson bankrolled The Family, and Charlie grotesquely misread the Beatles.

So we didn’t. Do any of that; we didn’t. We weren’t significant; we weren’t important. I mean, we really didn’t: in the national election of 1972, 18-21 year olds could vote for the first time. George McGovern, whose entire campaign was built on ending the war in Vietnam, was on the ballot. He got crunched, and the Youth Vote went heavily to Richard Nixon. Nixon was right about that silent majority thing. Sixties and Seventies, we youthful idealists, we didn’t end Vietnam or racism or sexism. I wasn’t a hippie–too young for the movement–but I loved the music and was attracted to the ideals, and I wish earnestness and sincerity really could change the world. It can’t. What does change the world is hard work, compromise, working daily at the endlessly boring and crucially important details of legislation.Line upon line, idea upon idea. A hard grind.

Good music is good music, and then the song is over. And that sort-of-interestingly-dangerous, compelling hippie man is saying lovely attractive things about revolutions and race riots and the White Album, and he wrote this nice song about me, and I even got to meet one of the Beach Boys! And then he’s handing me a knife and telling me to kill total strangers. And hey, why not, they’re just establishment pigs, right? Viva la whatever.

That’s who Manson was, the worm in the apple, the snake in the garden, the ugly violence at the heart of ideology. The sad game, played by naive fools. Now he’s got another one, another follower, another ‘wife’ for his ‘Family.’ So happy for them both.

 

My political manifesto

Confirmation bias: the tendency to search for, interpret, or prioritize information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses.

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors opined in class one day that actors were the most moral people in the world. His argument: the basis for morality is compassion, and compassion comes from empathy. And because they are in the business of creating characters, becoming other people, actors were pretty much always, you know, walking in the moccasins, so to speak, of other people. Hence greater empathy, hence greater compassion, hence morality. When he said this, I was in a show, acting across from a brilliantly talented actor who was also pretty much the most awful person I had ever met. Empathy was one of many human emotions he was wonderfully able to fake. Total narcissist, a womanizer and a creepy creepy person. We were doing a murder mystery; he was the killer, and I was the detective tasked with catching him. Watching him hit on every woman on the production staff gave my characterization added oomph, and I must say I found it supremely satisfying to hear the click of my handcuffs on his wrists, night after night.

Having said that, I would add that I acted for years, though not anymore, and that I generally love actors and consider many actors to be among my closest and dearest friends.

I thought about the misguided naivete of that professor yesterday, when I engaged in an entirely futile on-line debate about politics. A conservative friend found amusing a YouTube video caricaturing liberals; it was funny, he insisted, because it was true. I angrily asserted that it wasn’t either true, and that I could as easily stereotype conservatives. I argued poorly in that forum; let me redeem myself here by stating, firmly and unequivocally, what I believe to be true, absolutely true, in my heart of hearts true.

Principle One: American Liberals and American Conservatives are, for the most part, patriotic and decent human beings who differ somewhat in regards to matters of policy.

Principle Two: The Democratic and Republican parties are both comprised of people who love the United States, and want nothing more than for the nation to prosper and bless its citizens. Both parties are equal parts corrupt and idealistic. Most Democrats are decent, good citizens; some have the morals of pit vipers. Most Republicans are decent, good citizens; some have the morals of cockroaches. And both parties have individuals in their ranks who are narcissistic attention seekers, that being the besetting sin of politicians.

I am a liberal Democrat, deeply committed and passionate in my beliefs. I am a liberal  as a matter of principle and conscience. That does not mean that conservative Republicans are without principle or conscience-less. I study policy issues very carefully, and believe that my positions on matters of policy are factually based, supported by research and reason. That does not mean that conservative policy proposals are unsupported by evidence. Confirmation bias afflicts both sides; both sides tend to favor evidence supporting our previous prejudices and opinions.

As a liberal Democrat, I consider myself pro-choice. That means that it’s easy for conservatives to label me a baby-killer. I’m not a baby-killer. That’s preposterous. It’s a complicated issue, and in general, I come down on the side of a woman’s right to choose. My conservative Republican friends tend to disparage programs intended to alleviate poverty. That does not allow me to label them uncharitable or call them vicious meanies. It just means that they don’t believe federal anti-poverty programs are effective.

My father is much more conservative than I am, and there are a number of political questions on which we disagree. But he was and is a wonderful father, and I love and respect him immensely. My brother–one of the finest men I have ever known–is a Republican, but he called the other day, and we talked politics for an hour, and found very few questions on which we disagreed. Not all policy questions are partisan. Roads need to be repaired, schools need to be built, power grids need to be maintained.  Those may be ‘political’ questions, but surely they are questions about which reasonable people can find common ground.

None of this means that we can’t passionately advocate for our positions. Of course we can, and we must. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t genuine differences between parties and ideologies and platforms. Of course, those exist. It does mean that we can’t demonize the opposition. I do forget that sometimes, and apologize for it.

Let’s all commit ourselves to civil dialogue, and civil disagreement, when disagree we must. But what unifies us is much more important than what divides us. We’re American citizens. Let’s always continue to respect what that means.

The Sixth Circuit decision

After an unbroken series of victories in federal courts, those advocating for marriage equality had a bit of a setback last week. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 to uphold same sex marriage bans in four states, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Lower court rulings in all four states had gone for the plaintiffs, overthrowing such bans. The decision was written by Judge Jeffrey Sutton, with Judge Deborah Cook concurring. Senior Judge Martha Daughtrey dissented.

The Supreme Court recently decided not to grant cert in a number of cases involving same sex marriages, allowing lower court rulings to stand. No one knows why cert wasn’t granted–SCOTUS doesn’t have to explain itself to anyone. But it’s reasonable to assume that they decided not to review the cases because there was no dispute between them. Typically, SCOTUS reserves judicial review for instances where, on a single issue, lower courts disagree.

So plaintiffs in these four cases now have two options. One is, they could request that the case be reviewed by the entire Sixth Circuit en banc.  That is to say, they could request that the entire panel of Sixth Circuit judges look at the thing, rather than just three judges chosen randomly. Or, of course, they could ask the Supreme Court to review it. If they do, it’s probable that SCOTUS will take it.

Judge Sutton’s decision is, um, kinda unusual. It reads more like a civics lesson than a court decision. It suggests that the decision to expand the definition of marriage is not one properly decided by courts. It’s a federalism decision; a states’ rights decision. The definition of marriage is not something courts should decide. Then, when the decision does get into questions of case law and precedent, it does so idiosyncratically. For example, it uses a 1972 decision, Baker v. Nelson, in which a state court invalidated a gay marriage performed by a minister (subsequently denied cert by SCOTUS) as a valid precedent. But Baker was decided a long time ago, and is generally regarded as having been overturned by Lawrence v. Texas and United States v. Windsor, which are far more recent. And given an opportunity to weigh in on gay marriage, SCOTUS punted. But these developments might never have happened, as far as Judge Sutton is concerned.

Check out, for example, this passage:

Over time, marriage has come to serve another value–to solemnize relationships characterized by love, affection, and commitment. Gay couples, no less than straight couples, are capable of sharing such relationships. And gay couples, no less than straight couples, are capable of raising children and providing stable families for them. The quality of such relationships, and the capacity to raise children within them, turns not on sexual orientation, but on individual choices and individual commitment. All this supports the policy argument made by many that marriage laws should be extended to gay couples, just as nineteen states have done through their own sovereign powers. Yet it does not show that the States, ca. 2014, suddenly must look at this policy in just one way on pain of violating the Constitution.

Really? I don’t get this at all. I suppose what he’s saying is that state legislatures are capable of arriving at different conclusions than the conclusions reached by pro-gay-marriage activists. But that’s not the point. There are plaintiffs in this case who claim to have been discriminated against. That’s what you’re deciding. That’s the case before you. A decision that says ‘they might have been discriminated against. That’s possible. But it’s not really our place to say’ is preposterous. It is, in fact, your place to say. That’s your obligation, to decide that.

And for you to say (paraphrasing the rest of the decision) ‘the love and commitment of gay couples is equal to the love and commitment of straight couples, and the ability to raise children is, in both cases, identical, but that doesn’t mean we have to rule for plaintiffs. They should go out and become activists in their states, and get their local legislators to change the law’ is just preposterous. Judge Sutton, if you’re not going to rule in cases like these, why are you an appellate court judge?

Judge Daughtrey responded with a blistering, angry, and more than a little snarky dissent.

The author of the majority opinion has drafted what would make an engrossing TED talk, or, possibly, an introductory lecture in Political Philosophy. But as an appellate court decision, it wholly fails to grapple with the relevant constitutional question in this appeal: whether a state’s constitutional prohibition of same-sex marriage violates equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Instead, the majority sets up a false premise–that the question before us is ‘who shall decide’–and leads us through a largely irrelevant discourse on democracy and federalism.

Wham. She then goes on to make what seems to me an obvious point:

In point of fact, the real issue before us concerns what is at stake in these six cases for the individual plaintiffs and their children, and what should be done about it. . . In the main, the majority treats both the issues and the litigants here as mere abstractions. Instead of treating the plaintiffs as persons, suffering actual harm as a result of being denied the right to marry . . . my colleagues view the plaintiffs as social activists who have somehow stumbled into federal court, inadvisably, when they should be out campaigning to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee voters to their cause. But these plaintiffs are not political zealots . . . they are committed same-sex couples, many of them heading up de facto families, who want to achieve equal status. . . .They seek to do this by exercising a civil right that most of us take for granted, the right to marry.

She then eviscerates the main argument made by the defendants in this, and other similar cases nationally, that redefining marriage might provide a disincentive for irresponsible heterosexual couples to marry, devaluing it somehow.  “How ironic,” she says, “that unmarried, irresponsible, heterosexual couples who produce unwanted offspring must be ‘channeled’ into marriage, and thus rewarded with its many psychological and material benefits, while same-sex couples who become model parents are punished for their responsible behavior by being denied the right to marry.” Ironic indeed.

Being remarkably eloquent in defeat still means you lost. The Sixth Circuit opinion will certainly be reviewed, either by the rest of that court, or by the Supremes. My guess is that this decision will probably go to SCOTUS, and that this time the justices will grant cert.

It’s difficult for me to imagine that the Supreme Court wants to risk the kind of controversy a sweeping reversal of all those cases, in all those other Circuit Courts, would cause. And it’s impossible to imagine Justice Kennedy, who authored the Lawrence decision, would decide to uphold decisions as silly as this one from the Sixth. I predict it will go to SCOTUS, who will vote to overturn 6-3, with Kennedy, Sotomayor, Kagan, Ginsberg, Breyer and Roberts in the majority, and Scalia, Thomas and Alito in the minority. And Utah will provide the defining case of the controversy. Utah. Wow.

 

Apocalypse not

I didn’t watch the mid-term election coverage last night. My wife and I went to a movie instead: The Maze Runner.  Those were our choices: MCNBC,or Maze Runner.  Two post-apocalyptic dystopias. Hey, at least, in Alabama, the voters’ initiative banning the imposition of Sharia law passed. (Just in time, before Obama could impose it). Betcha anything the veiled cheerleaders are why Mississippi State beat The Tide.

As a liberal Democrat, of course, gallows humor is pretty much the order of the day. The Republicans now have a mandate: to not let ISIS behead too many of us, and to stop the spread of Ebola. The reality is, this was a low-turnout midterm election, coinciding with some foreign policy setbacks, and a really scary but not actually dangerous disease outbreak. Old white people got scared, and voted. Minorities had stuff to do.

Right now, here’s what national politics looks like. The Republicans control the House, Democrats control the Senate. So the House passes lots of bills, which the Senate doesn’t so much as even consider. And the Senate passes lots of other bills, which the House also ignores. As a result nothing gets done. President Obama does some small-scale governing, within the limits of existing legislation; other than that, bupkus. That’s the status quo. It’s going to change.

(And in the Maze Runner, these kids, all male, live in a community surrounded by massive stone walls. They have tools, a forest, the means to survive. They’ve created a nice little community for themselves. An opening in the walls leads to a series of mazes, which they’ve been mapping. But the mazes change nightly, and nobody has survived in the mazes past sundown. It’s a stable, but dangerous society. A new kid shows up once a month, along with some supplies. But nothing really changes, not really. They have a community, rules, a leader; they vote on things like chores. Stasis.)

So the Republicans now control the Senate, in addition to the House. What will this mean?

Three possible scenarios:

First, a lot of the screwier House bills that right now get passed and then go nowhere are now going to be passed by the Senate, which won’t mean much, because President Obama will simply veto them. In fact, President Obama could set a new record for vetoes. Deadlock will continue, and nothing will get solved; there’ll just be a different mechanism for inaction. I do think that the anti-Obama rhetoric we’ve enjoyed so much the last six years could ramp up exponentially. The cries of tyranny! and dictatorship! and monarchist! that the crazier elements on the Right are so fond of will increase in volume and passion. We’re going to see more bills introduced to rescind Obamacare, for example. Only now, instead of Harry Reid ignoring those bills, Obama will simply veto. Ugly as American politics has been, and racist and vicious and vile, it’s now likely to get worse, and much much more personal. Good thing Obama’s got a thick skin. (I think it would be really cool if he vetoed some of those bills from the golf course). I also think impeachment is a possibility, not that Obama’s done anything to get impeached for, but they’ll come up with something. That will fail too, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened.

(And in The Maze Runner, a new kid, Thomas, shows up, and actually kills one of the horrid spider creatures that guard the mazes. This freaks everyone out; change is scary.)

On the other hand, I rather suspect that Mitch McConnell and John Boehner would very much like to, you know, govern. They have two years to prove that Republicans can actually pass a legislative agenda. There’s stuff they can do. Not every bill out there is idiotic. They could pass a highway bill, for one thing, and probably will. That’s something that needs to be done, it’s not a tough fix, and there’ll be bi-partisan support for at least something that fixes infrastructure. It’s not likely to be a particularly good highway bill–they could possibly include some kind of anti-union provision for federal contracting–but there’ll be tremendous pressure on Obama to sign it. And if it’s not horrible, he probably will.

I watched Reince Priebus on Jon Stewart last night, and he said ‘we’ll be able to force Obama to work with us. We have that power now.’ But President Obama’s always been willing to work with Republicans, as long as what they propose isn’t completely crazy.

(And in The Mazerunner, suddenly, a girl shows up, the first non-male addition to their community. This terrifies everyone. Thomas also discovers that the maze has in fact been completely mapped, and that killing the spider creature is the key to opening a door to the outside. A way to escape is open to them all. Even more terrifying; the more conservative community members are about ready to kill Thomas. Also the girl.)

Priebus said something else that terrified me, though. He said ‘now we can really get this economy going.’ Thing is, we know what Republicans want to do economically. It’ll be more of their Holy Economic Trinity: tax cuts for rich people, spending cuts for poor people, and deregulation. Oh, and probably increases in the most bloated part of the budget; defense spending. Which leads me to my third point: budgeting could get really really nasty. As awful as budget battles have been up to now, they’re particularly going to get worse now. The Tea Party smells blood. We’re in for an awful two years.

(In The Mazerunner, the spider creatures attack, and many of the kids are killed. And they escape, and more of them die. And when they find their way out of the maze, what they discover isn’t particularly triumphant or good, but more death and destruction).

Which of these three scenarios is it going to be? Tea Party triumphalism, leading to massive numbers of Presidential vetoes? Sensible compromise, and some good legislation–a highway bill, immigration policy, education initiatives? Or some bruising budgetary battles? The answer is, all three. We’re in for a tough two years.

(The Mazerunner is the first movie in a trilogy. The next two movies, telling the rest of the story, haven’t been made yet. I could cheat and read the novels, but kind of don’t want to).

And then, gazing into my crystal ball, Hillary Clinton will be elected easily, and quickly become one of the most consequential Presidents in history. And the Tea Party could, once and for all, slink back to the margins of history, joining the No-Nothings and radical anti-Masons. So, silver lining, maybe. The Mazerunner kids do get out, though to what end? Uncertain, and possibly a little bleak.  As with America itself, this fine chilly Wednesday.

Election Day

And I voted. Earlier today. Got my sticker, and a candy bar. And now, until the next election, I get to complain about how everything’s going to heck in a handbasket, and if only they’d listened to me. . . .

Of course, none of the people I voted for are going to actually win. I live in Utah’s Third Congressional District, which means the incumbent is Jason Chaffetz. He’s not a bad guy, but he is wrong about pretty much everything; he’s a Republican, after all. The district is heavily Republican, and his opponent, Brian Wonnacutt, has hardly campaigned. He’s an old short bald guy, a software engineer who has never run for public office before. But he sort of inspires me, to be honest. He’s fighting the good fight, doing the best he can. He does believe in the scientific consensus regarding global warming, which Chaffetz rejects, because, you know, Al Gore. Reason enough to vote for Wonnacutt.  He’s going to get crunched, though.

I also voted for Charles Stormont in the hotly contested State’s Attorney race. The incumbent is Sean Reyes, who was appointed after the last AG, John Swallow, was arrested for corruption. Stormont and Reyes both work in the AG’s office, which means they’re pretty much equally qualified. Utah has, of course, a proud tradition of electing Republican crooks as Attorneys General, which means both guys are running on ‘we’ve got to clean up the AG office.’ (I don’t mean that all Republicans are crooks. I know of many crooked Democrats. Just that Utah’s AG’s have had a discouraging track record).  I have no reason to think that Reyes is corrupt, but I think a Democratic AG would be a nice change of pace. But Reyes will win. This is Utah.

(Of course, the State’s Attorney race I’m most interested in pits is the race in Illinois, where Alicia Florrick is in a tough three way race, going up against Bald Evil Guy and Frazier Crane’s brother Niles. I’m rooting for Alicia, but she’s got some problems, what with her law firm representing drug dealers and stuff. Plus, I don’t think her snake of a husband being governor will help at all. For some reason, the vote there isn’t for a few months. But, you know, go Alicia!)

Anyway, I’m a Democrat, and I live in Utah, which means that most of the folks I support are going to lose. But there is also a bond measure on the ballot in Utah County. It would raise money to support Provo School District schools, many of which are in very poor shape. That bond measure really really needs to pass. Provo High is falling apart. Sunset View Elementary is structurally unsound.

And see, that’s one of the reasons to vote. Because it matters. It does actually matter.

The people I voted for are mostly going to lose. The ballot measures I most strenuously oppose will probably mostly win. But if the bond measure passes, our local schools will receive some much needed upgrades. And that’s important.

I know that political engagement can be frustrating, and that politicians can be obtuse (or worse) and that so much of our national political conversation is, oh my gosh, infuriating. Trying to use the political process to do good in this world can feel like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon. But I will cling to my spoon til the day I die, and I will dip and pour, dip and pour, and maybe some tiny good will come from it. So go vote. It doesn’t take much time, and it isn’t particularly painful. Grab your spoon. Let’s empty that ocean together.

Madlibs news

You know the game Mad libs? It involves a story of some kind, but with details missing. “_____ and ______ ______ to the ______, where they’re attacked by a savage_____.” And you say to your friend, ‘give me someone’s name. Now a noun. Next, an active verb. Followed by a noun.’ And they go ‘Iggy Azalea. Daffodil. Brick. Zip. Aardvark.’  And you fill in the blanks: “Iggy Azalea and a daffodil breathe to the brick where they’re attacked by a savage aardvark.” (Answers, in this case, provided by my wife). And we all laugh. And, in this case, root for the aardvark.

Well, watching some of the Sunday news programs, it occurred to me that the news cycle has become a big game of Madlibs. It goes like this: “___a___ is a huge problem. It poses an existential threat to the continuing existence of the __b____. But ___c___ has not _____d_____. Instead, President Obama has ___e____.  As a result, ____f___.  What’s needed now is ____g_____.” Everything’s always an emergency, and the threat level is always high. And that very last blank, the correct answer is always “Presidential leadership.” Which, in every instance, has been inadequate. That’s the game; that’s how the story is shaped.

Let’s play. a) has included, in recent months, Syria, Ukraine, Putin, ISIS, and Ebola. b) is pretty much always The United States, unless it’s The Planet. c) is always ‘current polices’ and d) is ‘have not succeeded. e) is pretty much always ‘has not formed a policy,’ or ‘been indecisive,’ unless we watch Fox, in which case it’s ‘has been playing golf.’  f) changes depending on the story; it could be ‘Syria remains a trouble spot,’ or ‘Ukraine’s government is endangered,’ or ‘we’re all going to die of Ebola.’ g), of course, is ‘Presidential leadership.’ It’s always Presidential leadership that’s lacking, is needed, has not been forthcoming. It’s pretty much always Obama’s fault.

The national, mainstream media loves this storyline. ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC; they all rely on the same script.  It’s dramatic. It can be sustained indefinitely. It turns every situation, domestic or international, into a crisis. They imagine us, home watching television, shaking in our boots. (Mostly, we’re not. Me, I’ve been watching the World Series). And of course, all those news organizations pretty much have to do this to justify their existence. They are competing for audience share, and the shows with which they’re competing are similarly expert in creating a breathless sense of drama and urgency and crisis. Will the cops on CSI catch the serial killer? Will the Walking Dead folks get turned into zombies? Will Tom Brady win another ring?  Will Penny dump Leonard, will Sheldon get a clue about Amy? Will Isis attack Manhattan, will Ebola kill us all?

The answer to those last two questions, of course, is no. Emphatically, definitively no. Isis controls part of northern Syria and western Iraq, and are primarily a threat to the Kurds and to Yazidi Christians. Isis poses a humanitarian threat, of course, and if the Iraqi army is unable to cope with them–and so far, the Iraqi army’s response has been tragi-comically inadequate, though Kurdish forces have been far more effective–there may be further steps that the international community, most especially the UN, may have to take. But the notion that ISIS poses a genuine threat to the United States is preposterous. We know what ISIS wants–to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate. That goal is entirely unachievable. There are a few things the US can properly do about ISIS. For the most part, President Obama has done them.

As for Ebola, well, it’s a terrible disease, in West Africa. There have been approximately thirteen thousand reported cases, mostly in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and to a lesser degree, Guinea. Around five thousand people have died. That’s awful. Five thousand of our fellow human beings, dead. What a dreadful thing for those people, those communities, those families.  The World Health Organization has been highly (and properly) critical of the inadequacy of the international response to the disease, insisting that proper quarantine measures could completely contain the outbreak. Meanwhile, the Center for Disease Control has been working on a possible treatment, and Doctors Without Borders’ medical personnel have been absolutely heroic.

But here? In the US? Have you heard the joke about Ebola? I’m not going to tell it; you won’t get it. (rimshot). There is no Ebola crisis in the United States. It’s not an easy disease to catch, and if you haven’t been working in close proximity to Ebola patients, in personal contact with their bodily emissions, you’re not going to get sick with it. Watch; the next big story is going to be people getting the flu, and panicking, because they’re sure it’s Ebola. The national news has been ridiculously irresponsible in their reporting of this issue. It’s not a crisis.

But Madlibs news is pretty much always irresponsible. It’s always interesting to watch ABC’s This Week news program. The New York Marathon took place yesterday. ABC previewed the race. What was their focus? The possibility of a terrorist attack. Of course. Terrorists are scary.

And so these oh-so-serious journalists interview actual terrorism experts, and ask serious questions about the serious security measures in place during the race, and it all sounds really seriously dangerous. And the people they interview take the possibility of terrorism seriously—that’s their job. They can’t very well say ‘look, there’s essentially no chance of a terrorist attack at this race.’ They’d look terrible if there were an attack. But they ran the race, and there was no attack, and honestly, that’s about what we should all have expected.  Our reaction shouldn’t be ‘whew. Dodged a bullet there.’ It should be, ‘life goes on. Nice job, Wilson Kipsang.’ He’s the dude that won it.  Good for him. Amazing athlete. Make him the story.

Human beings are terrible at risk assessment. We really are pathetically bad at it. We’re terrified of an exotic foreign disease, while munching down Big Macs, blithely ignoring the fact that nobody in the US has died of Ebola, and 600,000 of us die annually of heart disease. We freak out over the possibility of an airplane crash, but drive ourselves to the airport in our cars, quite forgetting that the drive is much more dangerous than the plane ride. And, of course, terrorism has us terrorized. While 30,000 people die a year from gun violence.

The Madlibs approach to news has, of course, political implications. President Obama’s approval ratings are very low right now. In Utah’s hottest Congressional race right now (and one in which I, alas, can’t vote, because I don’t live in that district), Mia Love will probably beat Doug Owens. Her ad campaign is breathtaking in its simplicity–she shows a picture of Doug Owens and a picture of President Obama. Boom. As much as the Republican House is loathed nationally, most Republican incumbents are going to win reelection, and Democrats are in trouble. Why? Because President Obama hasn’t ‘done anything’ about ‘all those crises.’ Because he ‘hasn’t shown Presidential leadership.’  Fill in the Madlibs blanks. Old people vote Republican, old people watch the news, and old people scare easily. And voting’s hard. You have to, like, stand in line. It’s going to be a landslide.

And the one thing you can’t say is the simple truth. ISIS is not a crisis. Ukraine is not a crisis. Ebola, for heaven’s sake, is absolutely no crisis at all. President Obama has handled all those situations exactly appropriately, because in each case, there wasn’t much to be done. The ‘lack of leadership’ meme is a phony, fake narrative, drummed up for the sake of ratings by news organizations desperate for relevancy. ____a_____ is actually ___b_____. The only thing we have to ___c____ is ______d_____ itself. Fill in the blanks. a) America. b) doing fine. c) fear. d) fear.

 

Two kinds of crazy

Anita Sarkeesian is a well known and well respected feminist scholar and critic.  Here’s her Wikipedia page. She specializes in studying how women are portrayed in various kinds of popular media, and especially in video games. She’s perhaps best known for a video series on Youtube, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. Check it out. It’s great stuff, matter-of-fact, sensible, well researched.

She was invited to speak at Utah State University on Wednesday this past week. On Monday, though, a death threat was sent via email to university officials. The threat was specific and terrifying. I’m not going to quote it here, but it called Sarkeesian “everything wrong with the feminist woman,” and threatened not only her, but anyone who attended her lecture. Its author claimed to have pipe bombs, pistols and semi-automatic weapons. The email also referred to Marc Lepine, a gunman who murdered fourteen women in Canada in 1989.

I can’t begin to describe how incredibly troubling all this is. Sarkeesian’s videos are sensible, intelligent, informed, sort of fun, not terribly ideological. They do make the entirely reasonable point that women are objectified in video games. This is so obviously true, I can’t imagine it being a point of contention. Apparently there are men who feel terribly threatened–emasculated even–by feminism. Apparently lots of those men are also gamers. Who knew?

But as I researched this stuff, the misogyny embedded in so many video game texts, the ferocity of the rhetoric in so much of the so-called ‘men’s movement,’ I became completely disheartened. I wanted to post this yesterday, and couldn’t bring myself to finish it. I don’t want to research gamergate. I don’t even know what MRM stands for, aside from Men’s Right’s Movement. I read the MRM Wikipedia page, and found the MRM arguments incomprehensible.  I don’t want to follow the Red Pill subreddit. (I’m not even going to link to it. It’s on reddit, it’s not hard to find. I refuse to drive traffic there). I spent twenty minutes on Red Pill yesterday, and felt like I needed a shower.  I am a man, proud of being a man, proud to be male, fulfilled in my marriage and edified by the friendships and professional relationships with women I have always enjoyed. I’m a feminist, and proud of it. I don’t get this anti-women nonsense.

And death threats? Seriously, death threats?

And then came a (to be fair) entirely inadvertent interaction with a second group of crazy people.

And this gets tricky, because I have family members who are gun owners and gun defenders and I don’t want to call people I love ‘crazy.’

But here’s what went down. Sarkeesian was still willing to give her lecture on Wednesday. She just wanted to be safe while doing it. Perfectly reasonable. She wanted back packs checked at the door; Utah State made plans to do that. She also wanted personal firearms banned, except, of course, for cops providing security.  And Utah State couldn’t do it. State law allows concealed weapon permit owners to carry their firearms anywhere, to school, on a college campus. To search backpacks and confiscate (or ban) firearms is a violation of Utah law. And apparently a number of Utah State students do have concealed weapon permits, and could therefore have attended Sarkeesian’s lecture armed. Read about it here.

Argument A: This is a prominent speaker, speaking at the university’s invitation. The threat made against her was very specific and detailed. Surely the university had an obligation to take reasonable precautions to protect her safety. And the presence of concealed weapons by students licensed to carry certainly made her feel less safe, and probably actually made her less safe. If, heaven forbid, the guy who issued the threat had in fact shown up and started shooting, a bunch of untrained people waving their guns around and firing wildly would escalate the situation exponentially. The training received by concealed weapons’ holders is risibly ineffectual. Utah is the only state in the country with guns laws that idiotic. As Sarkeesian put it: “It’s sort of mindboggling to me that they couldn’t take efforts to make sure there were no guns in an auditorium that was threatened with guns and a mass shooting.  I don’t understand how they could be so cut and dried about it.”  She’s right. I don’t get it either. And I would certainly have cancelled my appearance, just as she did.

Argument B: Nobody at the university took the threat lightly. Everybody agreed that her safety needed to be protected, as well as the safety of other lecture attendees. But the University had no choice but to follow state law.  And concealed weapon permit holders are not the problem. Indeed, they’re potentially part of the solution to the overall problem of on-campus violence. It’s completely unfair to stigmatize law-abiding citizens exercising their Second Amendment rights. Nobody wants to be called a ‘nut’, and adding the word ‘gun’ to the front of it makes things worse. Concealed weapon permit holders have a track record of responsible gun ownership and use. “Right to bear arms”, y’all.  It’s entirely possible that women, attending the lecture, may well consider themselves feminists, and may find gun ownership completely compatible with their feminism.It’s possible that if the guy had shown up, and started firing, an armed woman may have been the one to put him down. Another kick-ass, armed feminist. They do exist, and if we’re feminists, we should embrace them too. Feminism needn’t be wimpy. Guns protect women too.

I’m an Argument A guy. I do understand Argument B. They both exist, and they both have many followers. Let’s acknowledge that, at least.

Sarkeesian cancelled her lecture because she was afraid of getting caught in a cross-fire. I would be too. I think that’s an entirely reasonable fear. She was, it seems, more afraid of the cross-fire than of the guy who threatened her. I totally get that. I don’t get the gun thing. I have never understood it. I don’t want to own one, and I never have. We didn’t let our kids play in their friends’ homes if they owned guns. I think that was a reasonable stance for us to take. And I feel completely safe unarmed.

But I’m also directing a play right now, and we have lots of guns on-stage. We have a props table with maybe twenty guns on it. The cast spends most of the show waving their guns around, and at one point, they use the guns to shoot a whole bunch of zombies. Now, the guns we’re using don’t actually work. Our ‘shooting’ is a sound effect. The guns are mostly plastic. They’re completely harmless. But oh my gosh are they cool. And our actors enjoy using them.

I haven’t talked to the cast about their personal gun politics. None of my business. But I do get this about guns: they’re cool. On TV, in movies, guns are awesome.

Now, this makes me think that concealed weapon permit holders are living out movie-driven fantasies. I’m still resolutely anti-gun. But I went to rehearsal last night, and saw that our props people had created this massive machine gun, and it was the coolest prop ever, and my reaction, when I saw the thing, was a heartfelt ‘awesome!’  And then I asked the actress who uses it to stop pointing it at my head. (Not that it actually worked. It’s a toy, basically). And our show is about zombies, a popular video-game trope.  So where does fantasy end, where does reality begin, where does sexism or violence in video games lead to sexist or violent behavior in the real world, where do internet, chat room fantasies play themselves out in real life?

I don’t know. I like Anita Sarkeesian, enjoy her video series, and wish I could have heard her lecture. She seems like my kind of people. And I’m unapologetically feminist, and don’t get MRM at all.  And I desperately hope they catch the guy, Sarkeesian’s threatener, before he acts out his fantasies. And . . . I think that machine gun is wicked awesome.  So it’s all maybe at least a little bit complicated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Obama Jokes

So I was watching last night’s Daily Show this morning, and Jon’s guest was Zach Galifianakis. They got to talking about President Obama’s appearance on Galifianakis’ parody web series Between Two Ferns. (That appearance was great, incredibly funny, BTW, in that peculiarly funny Obama way.)  Galifianakis talked about what the experience was like, coming to the White House and meeting with the President and eating in the White House lunch room. He said the food there was terrific, (and free), and they even had a dessert menu.  And on the menu was an item called Chocolate Freedom. And Galifianakis said to the waiter, ‘that has to be what you guys call the President, right?’ And Jon Stewart lost it.

It was a funny Obama joke. And it coincided with this idiotic debate I found myself in on the internets, you know, the way you do, arguing with total strangers over really stupid issues, and feeling like a total doofus for getting caught up in something that dumb. The issue, as it happens, was over a not-funny Obama joke. To wit:

President Obama, Phil Mickelson and Andre Agassi are in line at a bank, each of them trying to cash a check. And Agassi gets to the front, and he doesn’t have any ID. The bank teller asks, ‘how can I be sure you’re Andre Agassi.’ And Agassi says, ‘how about this?’ And he takes a tennis racket, and hits a perfect forehand winner out the door of the bank. And the teller is impressed, and cashes the check. Mickelson gets up there and again the teller asks, ‘how can I be sure you’re Phil Mickelson?’ And Mickelson says, ‘how about this?’ and he hits a perfect nine-iron out the door of the bank. And again the teller cashes his check. Obama gets to the teller, and is asked ‘how can I be sure you’re Barack Obama?’ And Obama responds, ‘I don’t have a clue.’  And the teller says, ‘will you have that in tens or twenties, Mr. President.’

This is a joke that Mitt Romney has been telling a lot lately, on the campaign trail for the mid-term elections. I think that’s significant. Anyway, a conservative blogger I know had put this joke on his blog, said he thought it was both funny and true, funny, in fact, precisely because it’s true. I said that I thought it was neither funny or true. It’s a joke about how hopelessly incompetent Obama is. That’s a favorite Fox News/talk radio/conservative blogger meme. Obama’s in over his head, not up to the job, clueless.  So it’s a joke that plays on that notion. I reject the meme, and therefore don’t think the joke is funny. And so we went back and forth, arguing over whether or not a joke was funny. Yes, it is. No, it isn’t. Yes, it is!  NO, IT ISN’T!!!!  Not my finest hour.

The reality is, though, there are lots of Obama jokes out there, and mostly they’re not funny at all. Some are dumb, some are mean-spirited, some just don’t make sense. Very few are genuinely clever, and most aren’t remotely true. And truth is what’s funny. Sort of.

The difficulty with Mitt Romney’s Obama joke (quoted at length above) is that it’s Mitt Romney giving it. It’s white male privilege yucking it up at the expense of an unprivileged person.  It’s a joke that relies on a shared presumption of Obama incompetence. And it can look like a rich white guy chortling at the presumption of a black guy thinking he can do a job better done by rich white guys. Obama came to office with the only qualification he needed to become President; he won an election. But you can look at his resume and see deficiencies; little executive experience, had never run a big organization, had only served in the Senate a few years. He would never get hired as a CEO. His credentials were unimpressive. And for a successful former executive like Romney, watching Obama win reelection had to be infuriating.

I would suggest that Barack Obama had impressive credentials of a different sort. A community organizer/law professor, combining street smarts with academics. He’s a different kind of cat. He’s cooler. In fact, he’s cooler in a McLuhanesque sense. Marshall McLuhan contrasted ‘hot media’ (like movies) with ‘cool’ media (like television). Cool media are about reflection and contemplation, require more of viewers, involve us in both intellectual ways. Hot media are simpler, and affect us more directly and emotionally.  I would suggest that Obama almost instinctively engages in cool ways with cool media. I would suggest that Fox News, and other conservative media, are by instinct hotter, more immediately emotionally engaging, but also, in a sense, at odds with their own medium. The incongruity of that interaction of the medium and message distort both. Fox takes everything way more seriously than cooler voices and heads do, and every crisis is the greatest ever, and with every decision, civilization as we know it is at stake. Obama tries not to get caught up in those sorts of games. The difference between Obama and his conservative detractors is in part stylistic. And he’s great at deflecting criticism, at flicking it off his shoulders.

That’s Obama. Hip-hop, but also Foucault. Reflective and deflective. Dispassionate and rational and funny in a self-parodying way. Ironic. In short, he’s cool. And so Romney’s joke falls flat, seems not so much unfunny as irrelevant. Uncool. (Reminds me of a tee shirt I saw recently.  “Keep Provo awkward.”)

John McCain is old. George W. Bush is stupid. Clinton was terminally horny, and Mitch McConnell sounds like a cartoon turtle when he speaks. And Barack Obama is full of himself, and bad at his job. Lazy comedians can always rely on those few tried-and-tested formulas for easy laughs.But those aren’t jokes that advance political discourse, of course. They’re not that different from jokes based on ethnic stereotypes–Polish jokes, Italian jokes, Irish jokes, Swedish jokes (if you’re Norwegian), or Norwegian jokes (if you’re a Swede.)

I wonder if Obama jokes would be funnier if we went a different route; if we went for anti-humor.  Anti-humor consists of jokes that don’t even try to be funny, which is what makes them funny.  My son gets a lot of comedic mileage out of Latvian jokes. Latvian jokes are deliberately, intentionally unfunny, told in a mock-Eastern-European accent, spoken in tones of unwavering despair. “Knock knock. Who there? Me. Am very cold. Also hungry.” Or this one: “Man has two potatoes. Sorry. Premise of joke ridiculous. Who have two potatoes?” These sorts of anti-jokes, these deliberate parodies of ethnic jokes generally, are funny because they are so absolutely, horribly not funny. For example, this: “What do you call a black guy in the cockpit of an airplane?  (Assuming an expression of outraged offense), “the pilot!  What are you, racist?!?!?”  An anti-joke that mocks self-righteous political correctness.  Or try this one: “How many potatoes does it take to kill an Irishman? Zero.”

That’s right, an Irish potato famine joke.  Too soon?

Or this: Ayn Rand, Rand Paul and Paul Ryan walk into a bar. They each order a martini. Then they die, because without regulations, contaminated alcohol was served.

It’s a perfect anti-joke. It’s self-righteous and partisan, but it simultaneously mocks self-righteous partisanship. It’s sort of true, and therefore funny, but it’s also ironic, a parody. It’s therefore also cool.

So: Barack Obama won the nomination for President by promising to get us out of Iraq. And he succeeded in doing so, despite dire warnings from mainstream news media. But now he has to send troops back there, because ISIL beheads journalists.

Not funny. An anti-joke. And therefore an Obama joke that might work, a little.

 

 

 

Can a Mormon be a liberal?

Can an active, practicing Mormon also be a political liberal? Yes.

In today’s Deseret News, Professor Ralph Hancock, from BYU, asked and answered this question. Though he’s a conservative, Professor Hancock likewise answered the question in the affirmative. Mormons can be liberals, liberals can be Mormons. We Mormons tend not to be liberals, but as I’ve written before, that’s probably more a matter of geography than ideology. Utah’s very Mormon, very Western, and very conservative. But Wyoming and Montana are not Mormon states, and are also very conservative. They’re all western states, and westerners tend to vote Republican, often for reasons having to do with land-use issues unrelated to religion.  I’m a Utahn, a practicing and believing Latter-day Saint, and a committed liberal. I don’t see those positions as being remotely incompatible. On the contrary; I’m a liberal because I’m a Mormon.

Say what? Yep. As a Mormon, I believe that the Book of Mormon is holy scripture. And in the Book of Mormon, evil is consistently identified with a lack of charity, with a failure to care for the poor and needy. Greedy selfishness was the sin of the Gadianton robbers, for example, the über villains of the last half of the Book of Mormon. It was the primary reason the Nephites fell.  A haughty unwillingness to succor the poor is even the primary sin of Sodom (Ezekial 16: 49-50), and not sexual sin, as is commonly supposed.  Above all, I believe in the great sermon by King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon, found in Mosiah chapters 2-4. Benjamin says clearly that even suggesting that poor people are poor because of bad choices they’ve made in their lives is sinful (Mosiah 4: 17-21). We’re all of us beggars before God.

Professor Hancock, of course, disagrees that programs in which a central government attempts to alleviate poverty are what the Book of Mormon is talking about:

Where I disagree with my Mormon liberal colleague is in his rather capacious confidence that a federally driven police of welfare aid and income redistribution is an effective means of lifting up the disadvantaged. Davis observes that a root meaning of the word “liberal” is “generous,” and since generosity is a Christian virtue, a more liberal welfare state is more generous and more Christian.

I leave it to readers to scrutinize each step in this logic; I simply note that Christian charity seeks the good of the whole person and considers material well-being in the context of moral and spiritual edification. It addresses the body by addressing the soul.

I would respond as follows. First of all, a Christian charity that ‘seeks the good of the whole person,’ is a Christian charity that extends from the premise that faults in ‘the whole person’ are what have left him/her poor. That’s pretty much exactly the kind of attitude that King Benjamin proscribes. Poor people tend not to be much interested in ‘moral and spiritual edification.’  They want to become less poor. If they have to listen to well-meaning platitudes along the way, fine, but mostly they want help. Paternalistic head patting has no place in policies alleviating poverty.

Let me be specific. I believe that what the vast majority of poor people really want is a job and a paycheck. So first and foremost, I support raising the minimum wage, making it possible for a hard working person to support his/her family. If a single parent wants a job, I support providing child care assistance. I support, short term, subsidizing housing, and for families struggling to make ends meet, food stamps as a temporary aid program. If a person struggles with a drug addiction, I think we’d be better off seeing his/her problems as a matter of public health, not criminality. And, of course, I think all citizens, of whatever country, have an absolute right to access to quality health care, preferably in a government-administered single-payer system. And I think that the richest country in the history of the world can and should do more to fight poverty internationally.  Too many children go to bed hungry throughout the world. We can help, and should.

None of this is remotely incompatible with the values of the Restored Gospel. The notion that the scriptures preach private charity only, that the scriptures are anti-government is preposterous, ideological and naive.

Professor Hancock also decries what he calls “extreme lifestyle liberalism,” which he calls ‘amoral.’  We liberals, he says, embrace such extremes as gay marriage and abortion-on-demand, which in his view come from viewing people not as moral agents, but as products of their environments.

Gay marriage is now legal in 35 states, in the sense that courts continue to find bans on gay marriage unconstitutional, violative of the Fourteenth Amendment. My guess is that by this time next year, all fifty states will be performing same sex marriages. To favor expanding the blessings of marriage to all our brothers and sisters does not logically follow the proposition that human beings are products of our environments. On the contrary, it comes from viewing all people as moral agents, as citizens and therefore equals. But it’s an issue that’s soon to become moot anyway.

So once again, it comes down to abortion. And the disagreement between liberals, such as myself, and conservatives, like Professor Hancock, on abortion, arises from a natural and inevitable disagreement over natural law, over the rights pertaining to all citizens. A fetus grows inside a human body, in a womb especially (and miraculously) intended for that task. A woman has the right to make the most basic decisions regarding her own body. A fetus, however, might become a human being, with all the rights of personhood.  So how do we balance those rights? Where does the right of the fetus to possibly become a person outweigh the rights of the woman to decide what will happen within her own body?  Especially given the uncontestable reality that not all fetuses survive to term. Women’s bodies spontaneously and naturally abort far more fetuses than are artifically aborted medically.  A baby is an infinitely precious and wonderful gift.  A gift from God, I believe. But it’s naive and foolish to not admit that carrying a baby to term can have a serious physical impact on the body of the woman giving birth.

Nobody cheers an elective abortion. That decision is, I believe, never made lightly and rarely made irresponsibly. I remain convinced by President Clinton’s formulation, that elective abortion should be safe, rare, and legal.

But if we want to limit the number of elective abortions performed annually, let’s do it with compassion and kindness. Let’s help with job training, education, health care, child care, to give single moms a better chance to succeed.  Let’s help.  Let’s make adoption easier, cheaper, more frequent. And let’s see if we can join together in toning down the rhetoric of abortion. It’s not murder–certainly not in LDS theology, it isn’t. It’s a tragedy. Can we mourn abortion more than we condemn it?

So, yes, I’m a liberal and I’m a Mormon. I’m a liberal because I’m a Mormon and I’m a Mormon because I’m a liberal.  And those positions aren’t remotely incompatible.

 

Granting cert . . .or not

I took a week’s vacation from blogging, only to return to stunning news. The US Supreme Court denied to grant the petition for a writ of certiorari in Kitchen v. Herbert. In other words, the Court’s not going to hear the case. They didn’t ‘grant cert.’ Which means that Judge Robert Shelby’s decision, as affirmed by the 10th District Court of Appeals, stands.

Gay marriage is now legal in Utah.

See, that’s the kind of in-depth legal analysis you can only get from a disabled playwright who is sort of a casual reader of SCOTUS.blog.

Wasn’t just Utah. Appeals from the Fourth and Seventh Circuit courts were also refused cert. Which means that cases that found anti-gay marriage laws unconstitutional in eleven states total were also affirmed. Gay marriage is now legal in 30 states. One of the states affected was Indiana, my old home state. Also Oklahoma, Virginia, Wisconsin. Colorado, Kansas, North and South Carolina, West Virginia, Wyoming.

Wyoming. Where Matthew Shepherd was beaten and tortured to death. Gay marriage is now legal in Wyoming.

So what happened? SCOTUSblog found the denial of cert unsurprising, pointing out that the Supremes “regularly deny review where there is no conflict among the circuits below.” Since June, 2013, there have been over forty decisions by federal and state courts in marriage cases, all of them (with, I think, one exception) affirming marriage equality. It might just be that the justices didn’t see an issue there for them to decide.

But if you want some probably irresponsible speculation, I’m up for it. It takes four justices to grant cert. Well, let’s assume that the liberal wing of the Court (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan) would have liked to take the case, hoping for a sweeping decision that would negate all anti-gay-marriage laws in the whole US. The conservatives (Thomas, Alito, Scalia), may have wanted to take it, hoping to reverse the national trend towards SSM. Justice Kennedy, the usual swing vote, was the deciding vote on Lawrence v. Texas, the decision overthrowing all anti-sodomy laws nationally. He’s a libertarian, and voted to overthrow the Defense of Marriage Act in the Windsor decision.  It seems unlikely that he would have joined the Thomas/Scalia/Alito wing in overturning all those forty decisions, but equally unlikely that he would want a more sweeping decision.

Chief Justice Roberts, meanwhile, though very conservative, is known to be seriously concerned about what he sees as an erosion of national respect for the Court as an institution. Either choice, the sweeping gay-marriage-everywhere decision or the overturn-forty-previous-decisions decision would be perceived as overly political and likely damaging to the prestige and reputation of the court. By refusing cert, the liberals get most of what they want, as does Roberts.  And Scalia, Alito and Thomas are only three votes. Sometimes, the best choice really is to punt.

The Deseret News has, for months now, kind of hilariously published at least three op-ed pieces a week arguing against gay marriage, urging the Court to take Kitchen v. Herbert, and predicting that the Court would, once and for all, reverse this dangerous national trend towards marriage equality. (Number of editorials published on the other side of the issue? Zero, of course). Some of the editorials were way over the top; others were reasonably written. But the possibility of a Supreme Court reversal never struck me as terribly likely. What I thought was most likely was a 6-3 decision affirming Judge Shelby’s decision, with Roberts joining the majority, and probably writing the decision. I thought it likely that Roberts would want to control the writing of the decision (the Chief Justice decides who writes decisions, if he’s on the majority–otherwise, it’s the senior justice in the majority). I figured he’d want to craft a narrow and limited decision affirming. But not granting cert accomplishes that same objective.

I’m a Mormon, a practicing and believing member of the LDS faith.  Our General Conference ended yesterday. (It’s a big semi-annual meeting for the Mormon Church). I was particularly interested in the comments of Dallin H. Oaks (one of our apostles). He asked this question: “Why is it difficult to have Christ-like love for all our neighbors? It’s difficult because we must live among those who do not share our beliefs and values.” We’re supposed to be ‘in the world, but not of the world,’ in other words, and that can be a tricky balancing act.  We’re to avoid contention, we’re to avoid anger and resentment, we’re to be disciples of the Prince of Peace, but we’re also to cling to our most deeply held beliefs. We’re combatants in an eternal battle between good and error.  The ‘strong tide’ in favor of legalizing same sex marriage, said Elder Oaks, is an example of the kind of error that Latter-day Saints are supposed to oppose. (It should be pointed out that holding differing views on legal and political issues is not prohibited for Mormons).

He then went on to say this: “In public discourse, we should all follow the gospel teachings to love our neighbors and avoid contention. Followers of Christ should be examples of civility. We should disagree, without being disagreeable.”

Did Elder Oaks know in advance of the ruling how it would turn out? I don’t discount the possibility. He’s a former judge, a legal scholar of the first rank, and a man with many many friends in the highest legal circles.  Was he saying ‘we lost this one. Let’s be generous in defeat?’  Possibly.  Certainly his talk was primarily arguing for generosity and kindness towards people we disagree with. And amen to that.

For many of my closest friends, today’s action by the Supreme Court is a wonderful thing, a cause for tremendous celebration and joy. For others of my friends, especially my LDS friends, the news is less positive. But let me add my support of Elder Oaks’ call for civility.  Gay marriage is now legal in Utah. Marriage licenses are being issued.  Let’s all agree to work to make the transition as smooth and easy as possible.