Pushback against war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hobby Lobby decision

“I’m not a. . . ” Jon Stewart recently did a montage of statements from politicians in which they declared repeatedly what they are not.  “I’m not a legal scholar, but. . . ” I’m not a professional chef, but. . . ” “I’m not a climate scientist, but. .  . .” It was a funny bit.  Obviously, the point of saying “I’m not a. . .” is to insist, against all evidence, that a person nonetheless has something cogent to say on a subject in which s/he isn’t actually expert, with the amusing subsequent possibility of idiocy resulting.  “I’m not a rocket scientist, but it seems to me that if we’re going to send astronauts to the sun, we should probably go at night.”  That kind of thing.

Well, I’m not a legal scholar, but. . . “  I’m a playwright, with a Ph.D. in history.  Uh, make that ‘theatre history.’  I’m not an attorney, a law student, a legal scholar.  I’m a guy who writes dramatic entertainments, for fun and for profit. And I’m a guy who likes reading court decisions.  I read Scotusblog.com for kicks.  I like Supreme Court decisions basically because I like the logic of them, and I dig the prose.  They’re not written in legalese, really.  The language is accessible.  So with all those caveats and disclaimers, understand that I probably don’t know what I’m talking about.  But the recent Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby is really amazing.

First of all, let’s admit this: as big, for-profit corporations go, Hobby Lobby is one of the good guys.  They don’t sell cocaine.  They don’t sell missiles.  They don’t sell smallpox diseased blankets. They sell crafts supplies.  Check out their website.  They have knickknacks you can use to spruce up your backyard patio.  Cool stuff.  And they treat their employees fairly.  They pay double minimum wage for full-time new hires.  They give lots of money to charity (well, Liberty and Oral Roberts Universities).  They close the doors of their stores at 8, instead of 9, to give employees more of a family life.  They close on Sundays.  On a moral continuum from ‘contemptible’ to ‘Christ-like’, with the Tijuana drug cartel way over there on the left, and the American Red Cross on the right, Hobby Lobby’s over there towards the right, next door, but to the left of, Costco.  Way to the right of, like, Walmart.

But now, because of Obamacare (shudder) (ironically), they have to provide health care for their employees, something they were already kind of doing.  They’re run by the Green family; their CEO is David Green. And he’s a very religious guy.  And he objected to paying to provide some kinds of birth control for his employees.

There are 20 different birth control medications approved by the FDA.  4 of them, including morning after pills and IUDs, constitute, in the opinion of some Christian traditions, de facto abortions.  If ‘personhood’ begins at conception, then birth control methods that terminate post-conception zygotes would be, I suppose, sort of abortion-y.  Those are the methods to which Green objected.

Here’s the logical chain of his objection, best I can ascertain it.   The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 restricts the government from “substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion.” The ACA (Affordable Care Act–Obamacare) required employers to provide birth control, and allowed the Department of Health and Human Services to define what, specifically, that meant.  They declared that all 20 birth control options approved by the FDA were covered.  Religious non-profit organizations, however, who objected to contraception mandates, were exempted.  Hobby Lobby is a for-profit corporation mostly owned by one family, and run by members of that family.  So Hobby Lobby can claim that it is a religiously oriented for-profit corporation, and that it should receive a similar exemption to the ones non-profits receive.

So that’s the first issue: can a for-profit corporation define itself as a person with religious objections to, well, anything?  I wouldn’t have thought so.  Who owns a corporation?  Shareholders, officers, employees?  Presumably a big variety of religious opinions are included within the ranks of ‘owners.’  This would be particularly true of a publicly traded company.  But Hobby Lobby is not publicly traded. It’s owned by a small number of people, nearly all of them from one family, all of them religious.  To quote Justice Alito (writing for the majority):

Finally, HHS contends that Congress could not have wanted RFRA to apply to for-profit corporations because of the difficulty of ascertaining the “beliefs” of large,publicly traded corporations, but HHS has not pointed to any example of a publicly traded corporation asserting RFRA rights, and numerous practical restraints would likely prevent that from occurring.
In other words, theoretically, any company might claim a religious exemption, but mostly, such claims would probably fail.  But it doesn’t fail to a company like Hobby Lobby, which only has a few owners.
But what’s the difference between a company offering 16 different methods of contraception and offering all 20?  Since the women employed by the company are the ones that decide which method to use (presumably in consultation with their physicians), then why would it be sinful for the company if some employees choose a method of which their employers disapprove?  It’s here that Alito’s decision starts to fall apart.
The belief of the Greens implicates a difficult and important question of religion and moral philosophy, namely, the circumstances under which it is immoral for a person to perform an act that is innocent in itself but that has the effect of enabling or facilitating the commission of an immoral act by another. It is not for the Court to say that the religious beliefs of the plaintiffs are mistaken or unreasonable.
So, it’s not sinful for employees to choose which contraception methods they’ll use, but since, in the opinion of their employers, some of the possible choices are immoral, their employers might end up sinning second-hand?  If I’m a pacifist, I’m opposed on moral and religious grounds to all war.  Can I object to paying taxes, if those taxes might be used to build weapons?  Obviously not. This ‘second-hand sinning’ stuff seems seriously problematic to me.  Obviously, HHS isn’t requiring David Green personally to abort a fetus.  Maybe one of his employees might, of her own free will, take a medication that, to Mr. Green, might be construed as abortion-like. That strikes me as a problematic standard. And Alito offers no legal reasoning to support this, to me, odd little side-step.
The court also suggested that if the government wanted to give women the option of using other birth control methods than the 16 the Greens approve of, the government could simply pass a bill paying for it.  “The Government could assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives to women unable to obtain coverage due to their employers’ religious objections.”  That’s almost comically naive; obviously, today’s Congress is never going to pass a law approving any such thing.
Then, right at the end, Alito’s decision veers into sheer incoherence.
This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandate for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs. Nor does it provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.
Just ’cause.
It’s really bizarre.  The court crafted a narrow ruling out of whole cloth. If the Greens can refuse to offer their employees birth control options they, the Greens, object to, then why couldn’t a Jehovah’s Witness CEO refuse to provide her employees with health insurance through which they might get a blood transfusion paid for?  Well, they just can’t.  Alito offers no rationale for this, no legal justification for it, no logical transition to it.  He just says ‘this exception is limited to this one case only, because we say so.’  No slippery slopes on this hill!
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent makes for fun reading.  If you don’t want to read 35 page dissents, here’s a highlight reel.  Or, if you’d prefer to hear her dissent in song form, here you go!
So it’s a narrow decision.  Justice Alito says so. But as often is the case with women’s health issues, (male) trolls pretty quickly started crawling out from under their bridges.  My favorite was our own Mike Lee (sorry, that should be Constitutional Scholar Senator Mike Lee), who opined that women use birth control for ‘largely recreational reasons,’ (or agreed with another troll who said it), and added “this administration is using the often coercive power of the federal government to force people into their way of being and their way of existing, their way of believing and thinking and acting.”  Not really, no.  Contraception is medication. 60% of women have used contraception for reasons other than to prevent pregnancy.  Also, what’s wrong with preventing pregnancy?  Isn’t it wonderful, that we live in an age where women can make their own decisions about how they’re going to live their lives?

So how is the Hobby Lobby case not an example of unwarranted judicial activism?  There are three women on the Supreme Court; they were joined, in dissent, by one man, Justice Breyer.  Also, and I feel bad pointing this out, but it does seem germane; there are five Catholics on the Court.  Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, Kennedy.  And Samuel Alito, hapless author of this unfortunate decision.  Meaningful?  That all five Catholics on the court concocted this bizarre mess of a decision, which also happens to deal with contraception and sort-of-abortions?
Here’s what I think: Kennedy, or maybe Kennedy and Roberts, was leaning towards joining Ginsburg.  So Alito appended this odd little final paragraph, limiting the possibility of Hobby Lobby causing further mischief down the road.  We’ll see what further mischief it actually causes.

Scary scary economics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The World Cup

I am a massive sports fan.  I love baseball, basketball, football and American football, in that order.  I avidly follow various professional sports teams.  My happiness, on any given day during the summer, in part depends on whether the San Francisco Giants won their ballgame.  So I get sports, I follow sports, I’m into sports.  Every four years, I go nuts watching the Olympics (though like most American sports fans, I completely ignore most Olympic sports the rest of the time).

So the World Cup is, for a guy like me, basically a pure party.  Pure fun.  Every since it started I’ve been, well, basically this.

I actually came a little late to soccer.  Growing up, it was not on my radar.  But when Salt Lake City got a major league soccer team, Real Salt Lake, I followed them.  They were the local team, after all.  And my son became a massive soccer fan, intense and knowledgeable–through him, I learned a lot about the strategies and intricacies of the sport.  I’m still very much a neophyte.  But what I lack in comprehension, I more than make up for in enthusiasm.  Go USA!

And is there anything more awesome than those Kiefer Sutherland/Jack Bauer pre-game promos?  Or this one, for the Ghana game? (Except Kiefer Sutherland was actually born in Great Britain, and is rooting for England to advance!).  The US team is gritty, tough, courageous.  A bit undertalented, but blessed with a world class goal keeper, and a bunch of players who play in the MSL, the American domestic soccer league, instead of working as mercenaries in the Bundesliga or Premier league.  Plus, we have four players who were the offspring of US servicemen and German girls.  Brings a tear to my eye, to think of our soldiers patriotically sleeping with frauleins, all for the glory of our future national soccer side!

So, yeah, I’m a fan.  Go USA!  And I’ve watched all three US games so far, and at least some part of every other game in the tournament.  Well done, Costa Rica!  Valiant effort, there, Iran!  Splendid football all around, Netherlands!  Sorry about that, England and Italy!  Boy has it been fun.

And then there was this column, from Ann Coulter.  Who hates soccer, and thinks the rest of us should too.  In fact, who seems to think it helpful or necessary to inject soccer into our American cultural wars.  Apparently, real Americans don’t like soccer.  “No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer.”  Liking soccer (or pretending to like it) is akin to the metric system; intellectually bankrupt rubbish being foisted on us Americans by Europeans.  And so on.

I think it’s possible that this column is an attempt at humor.  I don’t have any evidence to support that theory, since it’s not remotely funny.  Humor comes from truth–that’s why stand-up is the site for observational humor.  Ann Coulter tends to respond to critics of her work by saying ‘where’s your sense of humor?’  So I think she fancies herself a comedic writer. It’s possible that I don’t understand conservative humor (though I do rather like P. J. O’Rourke). But if a comedian says ‘did you ever notice why all frozen peas are the same size,’ we only laugh if we have noticed that, and think it’s true. Since Coulter ‘observations’ aren’t true, they’re also, ipso facto, not funny.

Very quickly, though, since she has ‘reasons’ for hating soccer, let’s deal with them:

“It’s boring.”  No it isn’t.

“Really, it’s seriously boring.”  Any sport can be boring for people who don’t understand it, who don’t know the rules or strategies or tactics or players.  You need to invest some time and attention.  If you do, it’s amazing.  I don’t think I breathed the whole USA/Portugal match.

“Every single game ends either 0-0 or 1-0.” You have no idea how intense a nil-nil tie can be.  So much drama, so much riding on every attack, every save, every possession.  And in this World Cup, scoring is way up.  But yes, one of the features of soccer is that goals are very hard to come by.  That’s why it’s so exciting when someone finally scores.

“You can’t use your hands in soccer.”  Hey, good for you!  You learned one of the rules.  And you say, ‘the glory of being human is that we have opposable thumbs”.  And also really strong leg muscles, so we can kick the ball really hard.  ‘Kicking’ is a feature, not a glitch.

“Little kids play it, and when the game is over, get a juice box.”  Actually, yes, it’s a terrific sport for children. Boys and girls can play it well, and it’s fabulous exercise for them.  Good soccer players are fit.  And yes, little kids like juice boxes.

“It’s not a sport for individual achievement.”  Anyone who could say that has never seen Lionel Messi play.  But it is true, soccer’s more about teamwork than individualism. But, you know, I just watched the NBA final, Miami vs. San Antonio, and the Spurs won because they were the superior team.  And it was beautiful, watching the ball movement and defensive shifts and screens and block-outs.  I love basketball, and the glorious passing of San Antonio, the pass leading to the pass leading to the easy shot, it was as pretty as that sport can get.  And baseball is an ‘individualist’ sport, pitcher v. batter, but is there anything lovelier than an outfield relay, or a double play?  And football, my gosh, it’s entirely built on 11 guys per side supporting each other, playing as a team. Ann Coulter doesn’t hate soccer, so much as she hates what’s best about all sports.

Mostly, though, she doesn’t like it because people all over the world love it.  It’s a sport for furriners.  So, fine, it’s a bad sport for xenophobes.

But here’s what’s wonderful.  We see these countries, Nigeria and Iran and Ghana, poor, messed up countries, and we don’t know much about them except really terrible things. And then we think, “there’s got to be something better in Iran than the mullahs, something better in Nigeria than Boko Haram.”  And then you realize that, yes, there is something better, some grace, some beauty, and we’re seeing some of it, passion and dedication and sportsmanship and humanity, right there, on that pitch, playing football.  Integrity and honor and competitive fever.  Teamwork and patriotism and sacrifice.

I love the World Cup.  Go USA.  And go Germany, or Argentina, or Brazil, or Uruguay.  Whoever wins, I’ll be watching.  And I’ll be cheering.

 

The Case Against 8: film review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Pain

I’m feeling it, every day, in my small corner of the internet.  We’re hurting. We’re troubled.  We’ve lost something we fear we may never get back.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee, nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.”  With Kate Kelly’s excommunication, some of us feel as though the Body of Christ just suffered an amputation.  And pain lingers.

Imagine a young woman in the Church, happily LDS, bright and ambitious.  I knew many such women in my twenty-plus years teaching at a university.  Let’s suppose she goes to college, graduates, finds a job in her field.  At work, she’s treated professionally, as an equal to others in her group or team or company. Occasionally, she may experience casual sexism, but there are places to lodge complaints, and complaints are taken seriously.  Perhaps she marries, and with some dexterity performs that delicate balancing act between work and family.  But then there’s Church, where empowerment seems more distant, even unattainable.  Why do men, only men, make the key decisions?  Is a biological imperative, reproduction, really equivalent to institutional governance, as the rhetoric suggests?  Why cannot mothers hold their babies when they’re blessed?  Why doesn’t the Relief Society President sit on the stand, with the other ward leaders? And boy, does modesty rhetoric grate on the ear. Petty complaints, perhaps, but suggestive.  And so this: Is this what God wants for her?  This can’t be right, can it?  And in that cognitive dissonance, there’s great discomfort, shading in time to pain, shading further into outrage.

But this hypothetical young woman is from the internet generation.  She’s used to social media; she’s used to organizing on-line, she’s used to chat rooms and Twitter and websites and Facebook, and Facebook groups. And she discovers other people who share her discomfort and pain and outrage.  There’s a forum for her.  There’s Segullah and Exponent II and Feminist Mormon Housewives.  And there’s OW.  And she makes friends (“I’m not alone!), and meets new heroines.  And the institutional church has no equivalent space for the kinds of conversations she longs for.  And those on-line communities are empowering.  And one heroine, for many, is Kate Kelly.

1 Corinthians 12 has been a scripture oft-cited over the last ten days, those wonderful words about the body of Christ, and our interdependence and when “one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it.”  And Kate Kelly’s excommunication feels like the unnecessary excision of a crucial body part, feels like a misguided institutional effort to silence a voice that may be heterodox, but that has provided great comfort to many.

And it hurts.  Oh, my gosh, it hurts.

But Paul also wrote this, in the same epistle, to the same Corinthians, right there in the previous chapter to the one I just cited:

But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.  Every woman that prayeth with her head uncovered dishonoreth her head, for that is as if she were shaven. . . .

For a man ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.

For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. (1 Corinthians 11: 3-9)

 

Paul, for all his wisdom and insight and inclusive vision for a Church open to all, was also kind of a sexist jerk. I mean, of course he was.  He lived in the first century CE.  He was a Roman citizen.  People from the past pretty much always look like sexist jerks to us.  Unrighteous dominion is a universal temptation, especially, as Joseph Smith pointed out, for Priesthood holders (D&C 121: 33-39).  Sexism, institutionalized sexism, is our heritage and our burden. We’re making some progress.  We have a long way to go.
That’s one way to see it.
But look at this another way.  Another hypothetical woman, another perspective.  This second woman is every bit as smart, every bit as tough-minded, every bit as thoughtful as my first hypothetical woman.  But she’s not troubled by LDS sexism.  She doesn’t even see it; she’s not convinced it exists.  She’s been active in the Church her whole life, and it brings meaning and peace and fulfillment to her. Her husband treats her as an equal, and from her point of view, so have all the men in the Church with whom she’s interacted. She’s had leadership positions in the Church, and remembers those experiences with great fondness and affection.  She feels at home in the fellowship of the saints, and in the sisterhood of the Relief Society.  To her, Ordain Women is home to malcontents, to troublemakers. Doubt is something to be overcome, not voiced.  Stop complaining, and do your visiting teaching.  And to her, the very existence of OW, or of other manifestations of Mormon feminism are laden with disrespect, not just to LDS men, but also to women like her.  When you say the Church is manifestly sexist, you’re calling her entire worldview into question.  You’re essentially saying she’s stupid. Or weak. Or unperceptive.  It’s an insult, finally.  God has spoken; we’re a church built on revelation, so follow the prophet, and you’ll be happy.  Again.
We’ve heard those voices too, haven’t we?  And if we’re Christians, if we’re genuinely trying to be disciples of Christ, can’t we see that second perspective is not just subjectively legitimate, but that it also comes from a place of pain?  That women who oppose OW feel disrespected, belittled, that they are as legitimized by the pain they’ve endured as the women who support it? 
We all need to forgive.  We all need to repent.  The way out of pain is Christ’s atonement, freely offered and freely accepted.  
This is tricky, because we’re talking about two different perspectives, two different world-views even, and one seems supported by the institutional Church, and one seems to have just been categorically rejected by it.  If you’re a liberal Mormon (and I am), and you live in Utah (and I do), you know how much of a minority you are.  I love my ward, but I can’t pretend that they regard me as anything but an amiable eccentric.  It’s a role I’m happy enough to embrace.  But without the internet, I don’t know how many real friends I would have locally.  So it’s easy to feel like a persecuted minority. And there’s unrighteous pride in embracing that label too enthusiastically.
But Jesus knew rejection. Nazareth was a poor village, a couple of miles from one of the richest cities in the world, at the time, Sepphoris.  As a carpenter, he probably got work in the big city–the poorest of the poor, working for the richest of the rich.  He knew rejection, he knew inequality, he knew disrespect.  “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” was not just a put-down, it was a deliberate, contemptuous insult.  He was Jesus.  Of Nazareth.  A nobody, from nowhere.  And he called for us to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile.  To forgive.  Unconditionally.  
My grandmother was a BYU faculty member back in the 60s, and one day, she discovered, completely by accident, that her assistant was making more money than she was.  She went to her Dean with this news, and he told her that it was because he was a man, supporting a family.  My grandmother was a widow, with five children at home.  She protested, and then he smiled at her condescendingly and said ‘women’s libber.’
She suffered that insult, and I know she found it devastating.  And she had four daughters, and all of them earned advanced college degrees, and worked professionally.  But she never considered herself a feminist, and would have found OW troubling. Nobody fits perfectly any template, and life’s always more complicated than we can suppose.

History is a battlefield, as is the term ‘feminist’ itself.  For some of us, Nauvoo means ‘The Beautiful’, cradle of revelation, home to the first sealing ordinances and a great vision of eternal progression.  For others, Nauvoo means a place of secretive, immensely creepy polygamy.  And for still others of us, Nauvoo means. . .  both.  Both/and.

We’re trying to find our way, as a Church, as a worship community, as participants in an immensely rewarding and frustrating trans-cultural conversation. Can we still find a way to press forward?  To forgive, to admit we don’t know all the answers, and to confess to ourselves that we’re in pain, and that pain is perhaps the one thing our Savior knew most intimately.  Let’s embrace Jesus.  Of Nazareth.  A nobody from nowhere, and Savior of the world.  Both/and.  And move, perhaps, a little ways towards healing.

Iraq again

Once again, Iraq is in the news. A Sunni army, called The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis, for short), has been sweeping through northern Iraqi cities, butchering as they go.  They seem to be headed to Baghdad.  And Iraqi troops have responded, basically, by laying down their weapons, ripping off their uniforms, and running away.  President Obama met with Congressional leaders, like he’s supposed to, and announced that 250 troops will be going back, tasked with embassy security and some minimal training of Iraqi forces.  (And Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority leader McConnell and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi all agreed that, Article One Section Eight notwithstanding, the President has plenty of authority to do anything militarily he wants to. Political courage has not been in abundant display over this one).  Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki asked for some limited American airstrikes, which President Obama agreed to, if they can be precisely targeted.

And so Dick Cheney (and his daughter, Liz, straight off her failed bid for the Wyoming Senate seat) unloaded on President Obama in an op-ed piece, saying ‘rarely has an American President been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many,” while calling for American soldiers to return to stabilize things.

The response has been remarkable, especially on the Right. Glen Beck (!?!?!?!?) said, on his radio show, that liberals were right, and he was wrong, about Iraq. Jim Webb, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, wrote a very strongly worded op-ed piece opposing any further US involvment in Iraq.  And a lot of liberal websites showed the remarkable footage of Fox News’ Megyn Kelly taking the former Vice President to task over his piece.

Sadly, they didn’t show the whole clip.  It’s true that Megyn Kelly started off with some tough questions.  But she’s Megyn Kelly, and she does work for Fox; the interview devolved into typical Fox blather about what a dangerous (really, seriously, dangerous) president Obama is.  Usual argle-blargle about how feckless he is, how he doesn’t take the terror threat seriously, how he’s left America weak, and so on.

So Factcheck.org ripped Cheney to shreds.  In fact, every substantive claim made by the two Cheneys on their Fox appearance is demonstratively false.  Basically, the complaint Dick Cheney has against President Obama is that he’s not quite as crazy paranoid about terrorism as Cheney was.

I don’t doubt that terrorism and terrorist groups and support for jihadists have all increased under President Obama.  But it’s not because he’s soft on terror.  That’s ridiculous.  I maintain that terrorism has increased precisely because of the actions we’ve taken to fight it.  I strongly suspect that every time an American drone kills a terrorist, we recruit fifty new terrorists.  The secret to fighting terrorism is winning the hearts and minds of people who mostly want to be left alone to raise their families in peace.  When an unmanned drone swoops out of the sky to fire missiles at a Pakistani village or Yemeni town, one response for those witnesses is to become radicalized.  Their friends, neighbors, acquaintances, townspeople, tribesmen, co-religionists have just been killed.  How would you feel about it?

As for Iraq, I do suppose the President is right to want some additional security for our embassy there, and if a little more training can make a difference for their army, then fine, though I’m skeptical.  Black-flagged Isis is plenty scary.  But I’m worried about mission creep.  I’m worried that 250 advisors today becomes 500 tomorrow.

The invasion of Iraq under President Bush remains the single most appalling blunder in the history of American foreign policy.  It’s time for Dick Cheney to shut up.

My favorite calling ever

The Mormon practice of lay ministries has come under scrutiny lately, because of what we’ve been referring to around here as, ahem, the recent unpleasantness.  Still, callings are a fairly unique part of Mormonism.  Pretty much everyone gets to serve.  We get ‘called’ to do some job or another, called by our bishop, usually, or occasionally by our stake President.  I’ve had callings since I was a kid.  Some of them were really interesting, callings where I was asked to do something I thought I might be good at and others where I struggled. That’s true for most of us, I think.

Once, for example, I was called to be ward membership clerk.  It’s an exacting calling, requiring a certain level of computer literacy, meticulous organizational skills, and a laser-sharp attention to detail.  Any of you out there who know me: does that sound like me?

At all?

There was one sister who I transferred in and our of our ward four times, entirely by mistake. The bishop got copied on all my transactions, and he finally called me and asked what I had against Sister (?).  Of course, I didn’t have anything against her.  I was just trying to tell the computer that she’d had a baby.  That computer program didn’t like me, and I didn’t like it, and that’s all I’m going to say.

The one benefit the calling had was that I got to look up my own records, where I learned that I’d died in 1991.  There I was, listed as ‘deceased.’  I informed the bishop of this, and he told me that it didn’t get me out of speaking that next Sunday.  Nor was I excused from paying tithing.  Being dead didn’t seem to confer any benefits at all that I could see, so, reluctantly, I informed the computer that I had not, in fact, passed on.  It asked me if I was sure.  Yep, pretty sure.

But by far the awesomest, funnest calling I ever had in my life involved my one and only time in the Primary.  I was called as Primary Temple Coordinator.  This was a calling unique to our ward, the brainchild of the Primary President, but an exceptionally good idea, in my opinion.  My job was to prepare a weekly presentation on the temple for the kids, during something called Sharing Time.  Sharing Time was for learning Primary songs (all of which are amazing, especially “Hinges,” the best song ever about elbows, vertebrae and knees.  “I’m all made of hinges, ’cause everything bends, from the top of my neck way down to my ends.”  What a great song.)  Sharing Time was also for stuff like recognizing kids who’d had birthdays. Stuff like that.  Well, in my ward, they carved out five minutes for me to do a temple spiel.

What I did was go in with a picture of one of the 143 LDS temples world wide, plus a globe of the world. I would point to the picture, and ask the kids which temple it was.  Then we’d look on the globe for where it was.  Then I’d show them where we were, in Utah, on the globe, and we’d make a big deal of how far it was to that temple.  And then I’d give a little lesson about temples; just very short and to the point.

Primary kids are between 3-12 years old; wonderful ages.  Kids that age are so amazingly, alarmingly honest.  For one lesson, for example, I brought in my wedding pictures; me and my wife standing outside the Oakland Temple.  I asked the kids “who do you think this is, in this picture?”  Answer: “It’s you and some lady!”  Another kid chimed in “you were a lot skinnier then!”  Sadly true.  Then I said “the lady in the picture is my wife, Annette.  Sister Samuelsen.”  “She’s a lot skinnier in the picture too,” said the kid.

The Primary Presidency kept a list of which kids had gotten to do things in Sharing Time, and they gave me suggestions about who hadn’t been called on for awhile and should therefore be recognized.  I worried a little that the kid I was supposed to call on wouldn’t volunteer.  No need.  Kids are basically narcissists; every kid could be counted on to volunteer for everything. I’d say “who wants to show me where this temple is?”  And every hand would go up: “me! me! me! I want to!”  Of course, they never had the tiniest clue.  And then you’d say “see, this is the temple in Switzerland.  Where is that on the globe” and they never had a clue about that either.  You’d work with them.  You’d show them where Switzerland is, and where Utah is, and, wow, look, how far apart they are!  But I’m not sure if the kids put it together.  One kid did.  I said “see how far away Korea is,” and he said, “how long would that take in an airplane.”  “A very long time,” I assured him.  (Like I knew!)  “How many days?” he asked.  The kid sitting next to him gave him a contemptuous look.  “Four,” he said confidently.  “It takes four days to get to Korea.”  All the other kids went ‘ooo.’  I decided to just let it go.

But of course kids are also the non-sequitur kings of the universe.  Once, I remember, I asked where the temple in the picture was, and one tiny little girl was jumping up and down, waving her hand, ‘me, me, call on me.’  She was, in fact, next on the Primary list, so I called on her.  And she said, proudly, loudly, confidently, “I just got new shoes!”

I loved the kids’ energy.  Of course, they’d just come from a 75 minute sacrament meeting, an endless time of just excruciating boredom, I imagine.  At least, that’s how I remember it, when I was in Primary. So Sharing Time was a time to get out the wiggles a little.  Getting to spin a globe probably looked comparatively fun.  Not as fun as singing and doing the motions for “Hinges,” but not half bad either.

I was Primary Temple Coordinator for about a year, and I loved every second of it. I think that any calling involving working with little kids is pretty awesome.  My wife and I also shared a calling once as Nursery Leaders, which was also pretty fun, if a little more meltdown-intensive.  Nursery is for kids aged 18 months-3 years.  There were lessons we were supposed to teach, and the Church manual for the Nursery lessons is amazing.  We taught lessons like “Trees show how much Heavenly Father loves us,” which is completely true, and good for all of us to contemplate.  The kids never paid attention, of course, but they got to draw leaves with crayons, which their parents were required, on pain of excommunication, to display with magnets on the fridge.  So we had something tangible to show for our efforts.

Of course, let’s not sentimentalize the kids involved.  I love children, but let’s get real: six-year olds are narcissists, and 18 month olds are sociopaths.  So you have to stay endlessly alert. But they’re also amazing, with an incredible capacity for love and affection, and also unrelenting selfishness. They’re us, in other words.  Human beings, in miniature.  Whose heart wouldn’t be captured?

 

 

The Deseret News gets Iraq wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then the comments section took over:

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

Followed by this, from a guy calling himself Bob.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve never been prouder to be a Utahn.

 

Excommunication, Republican-style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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