Saturday, January 29, 2011

Treating everyone equally

Rev. Dr. Melvin Woodworth of the First United Methodist Church of Tacoma, Washington sat down with a writer for Pam's House Blend (a gay blog) for a lengthy and informative interview. That particular church was already a Reconciling Congregation (on record for welcoming gay people) before he got there 3 years ago. Even so, he had a challenge for them. The Book of Discipline (denomination rule book) says to treat everyone equally. It also says gays cannot have a religious marriage ceremony in the church or done by the pastor (the state doesn't allow civil marriage). Those two statements are in conflict! The congregation wrote and adopted a statement that they would allow their building be used for such ceremonies and the pastor would be allowed to officiate.

Yes, this is in violation of church law. Though Woodworth doesn't want the hassle that would come if someone filed a grievance (nobody has yet) he notes: The grievance would involve an investigation. But that would not necessarily result in a trial and would not necessarily result in punishment -- the church law doesn't specify a punishment. He's pushing his region (Washington and Idaho) to specify a punishment -- a suspension … of 24 hours. Enjoy your day off, dude!

Woodworth also looks at the next General Conference (held 15 months from now) when the Book of Discipline will next be revised. At the last one there was an effort to make this next General Conference be more representative of worldwide membership. That gives African churches a greater voice. American conservatives pushed for it because Africans are much more conservative on sex issues. But the change could backfire -- African churches are much more liberal on all other issues (such as worker justice). Meaning American conservatives gave up a lot just to keep control of the gay issue. We must really annoy them! African churches are seeing they're being jerked around by the Americans. In addition, their views of gays are evolving. Maybe not in 2012…

At a previous church Woodworth was appointed after a pastor who was rabidly anti-gay. He was invited to talk with the women's group and instead of lecturing them he asked some questions, one being, "Is there someone close to you who is gay or lesbian?" Suddenly it was OK to talk about the subject and the congregation changed in a hurry.

The whole interview is worth the read. Woodworth explains things in a way an outsider can understand and I only mentioned a few topics covered.

The emphasis is always on separate

As the Maryland legislature gets ready to vote on gay marriage and the Hawaii Senate has approved a civil union bill (which should sail through the House and signed by their new gov.), it is appropriate to consider why marriage that includes gays is important. Timothy Kincaid of Box Turtle Bulletin provides a summary.

* Civil unions are designed to make sure everyone knows gay relationships are inferior. An alternate version of the Hawaii bill says as much in its prologue.

* Civil unions rarely match marriage in terms of rights and benefits. When the issue is separate but equal the emphasis is always on separate.

* Gays are entitled to all of what society means when the word marriage is used. Case in point is a Navy Vietnam veteran who wanted his ashes to be interred at the Naval Academy. The Academy didn't know what to make of the guy who made the request. But when an Iowa marriage certificate was produced the deceased's husband was given all honors as next-of-kin.

* The average citizen doesn't know what is meant by civil union, civil partnership, domestic partnership, limited domestic partnership, registered partnership, life partnership, or reciprocal benefits, some of the terms used around the world. That's if any of them are available. It doesn't help the definition is whatever the government wants it to be. Ireland just approved a civil union law and in it they spelled out that gay marriages from other countries become civil unions in Ireland. But if you have a domestic partnership from Nevada or a civil union from Uruguay, sorry, but that doesn't translate in Ireland.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Tension and balance in the Constitution

About two weeks ago I wrote about how the Tenth Amendment and the Constitution's Spending Clause may create mischief if applied to the gay marriage cases coming out of Massachusetts and challenging the Defense of Marriage act. The author of that original explanation has expanded on it. I think it makes sense now.

The Tenth Amendment says that powers not spelled out in the Constitution belong to the states or individuals. This is supposed to limit the reach of the federal government. That hasn't quite worked that way. The prologue of the Constitution says the government may do what is necessary for general welfare and good order and to spend money needed to achieve those goals. Scholars (and lawmakers) will debate endlessly over the proper balance between the needs of general welfare and the need to keep government from intruding on the rights of the people. How does the general welfare of a healthy populace balance with your desire not to be taxed for it?

Judge Tauro, in this case from Massachusetts said the Tenth means the definition of marriage has been left to the states. Alas, says Ari Ezra Waldman, there are a couple problems with that claim. Modern tax code and welfare benefits have all kinds of definitions of the kinds of families that qualify. But if that conflicts with the Constitution, then Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and lots of other programs can be challenged as being in conflict with the Tenth. And, yes, there are many who would like to do just that. This is why Obama's Department of Justice had to defend the law, as bad as we think it is. The better course would have been to declare DOMA unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment, the one about equal protection (as was done in the Calif. marriage case).

Expanding the definition of serving our country

Retired general Stanley McChrystal (former commander in Afghanistan) has an essay in Newsweek. He says the definition of service to our country has narrowed to mean only military service. Our responsibilities as citizens has narrowed to mean only paying taxes, voting, and obeying laws. But we also have a responsibility to build community. Yes! I'm thinking, this is someone who gets it.

Alas, he then loses me. To McChrystal, service is done by the young as part of a designated program, such as Teach for America, Americorps, and City Year. Once service is complete, the youth is done except for the bragging.

Sorry, general, I admire your goal, but think your solution is too narrow. Everyone should be involved in the work of building community. Even those with a career well established need to spend time getting their hands dirty in the work of improving life for all. I do it by washing dishes at a gay teen center.

Speaking of my volunteer work, I got a call from an office volunteer at the Ruth Ellis Center. She is organizing the database of potential and current volunteers. She had record of my interest to serve and called to help me get started. She was a bit surprised to learn I had already been serving there for 2 1/2 years.

Legalism v. compassion

My friend and debate partner sent me this story. It's about a Catholic Hospital that performed an abortion to save the life of the mother. The local bishop had a hissy-fit and excommunicated the nun on the hospital's ethics committee that approved the procedure. The hospital refused to fire her. So the bishop excommunicated the whole hospital. The response was to drop it's Catholic affiliation and go about its business healing people.

There has long been a conflict around what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Some have felt the solution is personal holiness -- if I follow all these rules, perform all these rituals, avoid those bad things, then I'm properly following Jesus. This is also known as legalism. Others, including myself, say the proper response is compassion, no matter the rules.

This tussle between Catholic hierarchy and Catholic institutions is likely to get bigger.

Lisa Miller in Newsweek notes another reason why Congresscritters are so antagonistic these days. Most of them leave their spouses and families back in their home state. The House calendar is now designed to encourage that. The spouses, especially the wives, used to socialize together a lot and they were the ones who made sure lawmakers saw opponents as people, not simply as an enemy.

All during the crafting of last year's health care bill, reports Ezra Klein in Newsweek, the GOP forced the Dems (several times) to go to the Congressional Budget Office to get the bill analyzed. The final bill was fiscally responsible.

The CBO has long been firmly non-partisan, reporting only on the cost of a bill. But with the GOP trying to savage the health care law, the CBO is coming under fire. The GOP is now claiming the law will add to the deficit, something the CBO refutes. So the GOP says the numbers are "smoke and mirrors" and is trying to abolish the CBO.

File this one under the GOP working hard to make government not able to work.

At the expense of those excluded

A week ago I wrote my opinion why I thought Fundie churches aren't declining as fast as many mainstream liberal denominations. As part of my ramblings I said that Fundie churches appear to be very good at building community. My friend and debate partner objected to my choice of words. About a year and a half ago he joined a Unitarian Universalist Church, a denomination that emphasizes community. So my friend is worth listening to. His reply begins with a quote from my posting (the italics is in the original).

"Alas, this community has stringent entrance requirements. They are a community to each other but work to make sure their community is not open to undesirables. Like me."

In my opinion, that's not community. Community is what we ALL do together. It does not exist where inclusion is combined with contempt or intolerance or hatred for those excluded. If I must characterize such non-community, I would call it conspiracy. Note the "piracy" in "conspiracy".

We Americans far too often use the word community when we mean "granting privileges to those included at the expense of those excluded" -- a practice with obvious moral deficiencies.

Race: Segregationalists did not create community for themselves; they conspired to harm blacks.

Class: Fraternity boys who look down on non-"Greeks" are not a community -- they are a young/old boy network, with all that connotes.

Gender: Companies that pay women less than men for similar work (etc.) do not create community among the men benefited. They steal from those discriminated against.

Families that care only about other family members' well-being are not a community. They are selfish and short-sighted about their connections to others.

My friend is correct and his objection highlights my original point. What I wrote before used two definitions of the word community. I didn't make that distinction clear.

Most people need a bunch of people with whom they feel "at home." This is some group of people who welcome them, accept them for who they are, offer companionship and friendship, help them out in a time of need, and provide a way for their own talents to be used.

That sense of belonging used to be routinely provided by the small towns we were a part of, the church or social club we belonged to, or perhaps the city neighborhood where we lived. It didn't work perfectly as some people got left out. But our current, mobile society doesn't do this well, leaving many people searching for a place to belong. They lack community.

An outsider (granted, the right kind or outsider) walking into a Fundie church might be made to feel included and cared for, enough to feel they found their community. This is the same reason why many inner city youth join gangs.

But my friend and debate partner is correct. What one finds in Fundie churches is a corrupt form of community, one that is as much exclusive as it is inclusive. As I said in my original post, improving mental health is a goal of Jesus. An important part of mental health is recognizing that all of humanity is a part of one large community. Maintaining the mind-set that fosters and insists on exclusion does not build mental health.

So, to the novice, the welcome he or she may get in joining a Fundie church can sure feel like community to someone who needs one, but (as my friend points out) it isn't the real thing.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Football season is approaching

Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota, appears to be working towards a run for president. He's also been wooing anti-gay organizations. He seems to be counting on backlash from Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal and other pro-gay initiatives. Looks like we get to be a political football for another round.

Even though GOP Congrescritters are working diligently to take health care away from the poor, don't you dare think about suggesting they voluntarily give up their own super-duper government provided health benefits. Can you say hypocrite?

GOP drunk with power? Talk is now circulating about places where federal spending can be cut. The latest targets: National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Several GOP members want to zero out the budgets of all three. Total savings? Just over $600 million. Compared to a deficit north of $600 billion. Because, gosh, the arts are just so dang liberal.

In addition the number of governors who are solidly anti-abortion is now 29 (up from 21 last October). There are 15 of those states with solidly GOP legislatures. Michigan is one of the 15. Look for womb control legislation to flourish across the country.

I have the definition right in front of me

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has been rating some anti-gay organizations as hate groups, in a manner similar to white supremacist groups. To achieve that status, an organization must do more than say they don't like gays and think that gays will go to hell. That's bad enough. Those that get the hate group tag work to demonize gay people and intentionally misuse science, or outright lie, as part of that demonization.

When the Traditional Values Coalition and MassResistance (the anti-marriage group) were so designated in the past most in the anti-gay business essentially rolled eyes, shrugged, and went about their work. The leaders of these groups seemed the most extreme and everyone else could say, "We're not like them."

This year the ranks of hate groups included Family Research Council with mentions of the National Organization for Marriage and Concerned Women for America. And this year there was a loud reaction, calling SPLC all manner of vile names.

So what's the difference between TVC and FRC?

Timothy Kincaid of Box Turtle Bulletin offers an explanation. TVC is essentially political and FRC is essentially religious. Branding a political group as a bunch of haters is doesn't stretch one's imagination too much. Ah, but branding Christians with the same hot iron is another matter. According to Fundies, Christians -- by definition -- cannot hate.

It was Jesus himself who set up that definition. From John 13:35 -- "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." The non-negotiable part of being a Christian is that you love.

So if the SPLC says FRC is a hate group they are saying FRC is not Christian. I think SPLC hit the target exactly.

One thing to note about that passage from John. A person (or organization) cannot decide if he is Christian. It is the outsider (in this case SPLC) who gets to make that determination.

Lying about us is loving us?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Play it straight, play it gay

I went to see the movie I Love You Phillip Morris starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor. It is a gay love story between the characters played by Carrey and McGregor, and the two actors are marvelous in their portrayals. But Carrey's character is such a scoundrel and scam artist one can get annoyed with him real fast.

There has been a lot of talk in gay blogs -- inspired in part by annoying comments in Newsweek -- about how openly gay actors can't be accepted playing straight characters, while it is a laudable dramatic stretch for a straight actor to play gay. The reasoning goes that the audience would know the actor is gay and would have difficulty projecting their own romantic fantasies onto the love life of the character.

So tell me why the reverse isn't true? It was a wonderful love story. But Carrey and McGregor are firmly straight. Why should there be no problem projecting my gay fantasies onto a straight actor? And why couldn't we have gay actors in those roles?

Security, fraud protection, and nothing else

What is the function of government? This is a hot topic by Libertarians and those that want smaller government, or don't want to pay for the government we have now. According to Libertarians, government is to only be responsible for a standing army, local security, and a court system. And that court system is to protect individuals against aggression, theft, breach of contract, and fraud.

Perhaps 25 years ago when I worked as a computer programmer there was a fellow programmer in our office for several months who talked a lot about Libertarian principles. All the fiction he read was from one author who set his stories in worlds that followed Libertarian ideals. One tried not to get into discussions with this guy because his "discussions" were so one-sided, the speech of a true convert out to change the world.

One of the things he talked about was ownership of roads. Instead of government maintaining roads, we could leave it to private enterprises. This included residential roads in addition to the major thoroughfares. If you drove over the roads belonging to a company you paid them a fee. At the time I thought (but never mentioned to him because I didn't want to face the long-winded reply) such a system would require me to spend a great deal of time writing checks to various road companies. Wouldn't it be easier to consolidate all that into one body that took care of all the roads? That way I could write one check. And, by golly, that sounds a lot like what the government does for me.

Christopher Beam, in the New York Magazine, has a long discussion on Libertarianism. Here's an important point: strip government down to its skivvies and our society doesn't work. If I have a product to sell, where does the money come from? Each bank prints its own, right? No, for that we need a central bank. What to do with people out of a job? Charity, right? What if charities can't handle the load because they don't have enough money? We'll need a welfare system so they don't become so desperate they'll start stealing. What to do if companies can't make enough money educating poor youth? Perhaps government needs to set up schools after all.

The answer of market economy or charity isn't enough and Libertarians have postponed thinking about that problem. Which means they never have to prove their system doesn't work.

Some more issues: Can I trust my doctor if the government doesn't issue licenses? Getting my neighbor's kid vaccinated helps the country as a whole. What if that family can't pay for it? If government is responsible for a public good, such as a standing military, what about clean air? If a private enterprise is responsible for clean air can they ever have the clout to make it happen?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Redirecting poor mental health

Every few years mainline Christian denomination membership numbers are reported. Each time there is loud gnashing of teeth because the data shows steady declines since the 1950s. Usually accompanying those numbers is some crowing from the Fundie denominations. They say people prefer their (true, as they claim it) religion because the numbers show a smaller percentage in their declines (though there is still a decline). Since I think of their theology is a corruption of what Jesus taught I have wondered what could explain their slower decline.

What follows are my own thoughts and ramblings on the situation. I have no data to back up what I say. I would welcome a debate from anyone with insight.

I spoke last summer to a small group of Christians (including at least two pastors) about what I have concluded is the essence of what Jesus taught. It all comes down to just a few ideas:

* God is with us, he isn't some far-off deity. He offers personal power and guidance through the Holy Spirit.

* The teachings of Jesus, practiced correctly, build mental health.

* The same teachings build and restore community -- we're all in this together and we do best when we help each other and grow into one large family.

So what might a Fundie church provide? What does it have that allows it to keep old members and attract new ones (at least better than other mainline denominations)?

It appears Fundie congregations are pretty good at building community. Their theology is so annoying to me I haven't tested this idea in person. Once you are a properly vetted member, you have a strong sense of belonging. On the flip side, if your credibility with the community is tarnished you can be exiled. I've heard of gays that strive to remain closeted simply because revealing their orientation would result in banishment from the only community they know.

Such a community may be attractive to an outsider and our society is currently quite bad at building community. I've heard the rise in patriotism in recent years is because so many people are desperate for a community, a sense of belonging, of any kind. Being a member if the community of patriots is more than they had before. And admission is cheap, only the price of flags and flag decals.

Alas, this community has stringent entrance requirements. They are a community to each other but work to make sure their community is not open to undesirables. Like me.

Another offer of the Fundie denominations is the promise of something constant in an era of rapid change. They claim the Ten Commandments were set in stone 3000 years ago and still apply. They claim the definition of marriage is unchanged for 2000 (or maybe 5000) years (in spite of evidence to the contrary). They claim that God is unchanging and that if it isn't in the Bible (the form of which was finalized about 1700 years ago) it can't be true.

I came across commentary by Amanda Marcotte of the blog Pandagon that many Tea Party members want a return to the Gold Standard. Some think this is a way for restricting government spending, but she proposes another reason:

It satisfies their need to believe in a higher, absolute authority. Just like the obsession with believing the Constitution and Bible are non-ambiguous documents that just so happen to agree with everything wingnuts do, and cannot be crossed by mere people, they like to believe that gold is a currency that has intrinsic value that puts it outside the scary world of social constructs and arbitrariness. You get the same obsession, by the way, with English-only thinking. The hope is that there is something solid and unchanging that has value and meaning outside of what humans imbue in it, a sort of final authority they can put their faith in. But just as the category “English” is actually not as rock solid as they think---language is ever-changing---and the Bible and Constitution are up for interpretation, so is it true that there’s no intrinsic value to gold. It only has value for the same reason paper money as value, because we say so.

But this belief in an unchangeable authority does not promote mental health. It does not help a person deal with a world that does change.

That leads me to the third way in which I believe the Fundie religion appeals to many.

Achieving mental health is hard. It is one thing to have an absence of mental illness. Most of us can manage that. It is quite another to have a mental state so healthy that one can be persecuted and still look out for the welfare of others, including those doing the persecuting, which Jesus was able to do. All of us have quirks and foibles that keep us from our full potential and keep us from building an ideal community. We are quite content to let those quirks be, preferring them to the work required to eliminate them. Some of us even treasure these quirks, building our personality around them.

When my nephew became a Catholic priest last May I attended a service of thanksgiving over which he presided in the town where my parents live and where my nephew grew up. One part of the Catholic Mass that struck me as strange was the congregation repenting of sins, then speaking to Jesus, "Just say the word and I will be healed." This implies that mental health is instantly granted, not something that one must strive to build. It seems to deny the work one must do to be reconciled to the community after conflict has occurred.

It appears that Fundie denominations do not build mental health. Instead, they redirect the mental quirks for their own ends. You're a bigot? Fine. As long as you direct your bigotry in the manner approved by God.

The big quote above includes this idea. Fundies (and Tea Party members) claim loyalty to an unchanging document but then use it in a manner that reinforces their own biases. I see it a lot in Fundie uses of the Bible, complete with their claims it is infallible, dictated by the Holy Spirit, and cannot be changed (except for the parts they desperately want to ignore).

I came across an example of this last April from a blogger who calls herself Seething Mom. She has documented her spiritual journey over the last seven years since learning one of her sons is gay. That revelation prompted her to examine and reject her Catholic faith as she found she could not take part in a religion that demonized her son for no good reason. She can now speak eloquently and forcefully against the latest rantings from the Pope and anyone else who suggests her son isn't a first-class citizen.

One of Seething Mom's brothers had been an alcoholic, one of those guys for whom the problems of life were never his fault. Lots of room for growth in mental health. But he didn't go through AA. Instead, he joined a Fundie church, got religion, and simply quit drinking. He has become insufferable and intolerant, able to claim that he is going to heaven and his gay nephew, an genuinely sweet man, is going to hell. That story affected me and prompted me to comment about that brother being a "dry drunk" -- one who has stopped drinking but refuses to make amends for the harm he caused while drunk.

This Fundie faith has not improved the mental health of that brother. Instead, it has excused -- perhaps even blessed -- his poor mental health. I can see that for some people a religion that does that would be an attraction.

One might then ask why other mainline denominations are declining even faster. I have some thoughts on that too, though based on my own congregation. What goes on in my own church probably goes on in other congregations around the world.

My congregation is decent at building community, though won't extend the definition of community to anything that seriously challenges the status-quo. The music in the morning service is definitely geared towards to the 50-and-older crowd (translation: no guitars or drums unless we already like you). We make an attempt to meet the needs beyond our doors, but not really in a way that attracts others to our community.

Another way to look at community. If I'm asked, I'll do something for someone in the congregation (a shut-in needs a wheelchair access ramp built up to the front door). I'll also help out, and sometimes lead, service projects sponsored by the church. I'll help the morning service be more meaningful. But, alas, there are perhaps a dozen people I would truly consider a friend and seriously care about.

There is some talk in the morning message about improving mental health as Jesus teaches, but this comes off as a suggestion. There is no effort to really work at it.

Every so often there is a suggestion by one pastor or another that we invite our friends to a service. I rarely see that happen. I suspect members enjoy each other's company and enjoy the worship experience, but don't see it being so wonderful they want to tell anyone about it. We're not all that much different than a community that has come together over any other common interest. Sigh.

There is a passage in Revelations, the last book of the Bible, that is something like this. Jesus tells a congregation he has no use for them. If they were hot, their faith passionate, they would be hard at work spreading his message. If they were cold, Jesus could confront them and turn them to being hot. But this church is only warm and Jesus can't do anything with believers who aren't inspired enough to act on their beliefs.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

All wet

After an 11 day adventure (originally scheduled to be 3 and revised to 7) I was able to take a shower in my own house today. The contractor finished major work on Friday and sprayed on grout sealant on Saturday. It's done.

I did take two showers in the "Wellness Center" (what I would have called a fitness center) at the college on days that I taught. I took advantage of the walking track while there. The first shower was cold because I was the first one to use the showers that day and it seems the water heater is in the next building. It warmed up by the time I needed to rinse off. As I prepared for the second I turned on 3 showerheads, then undressed. It was warm enough by the time I needed it.

Some of the delay in the work was because my house is so humid the tile adhesive took days to dry. I have a humidifier on my furnace for winter use, but the humidity has been so high the humidifier hasn't bothered to turn on over the last two winters. I don't know the source of all that moisture and suspect it might have been the previously insufficient bathroom fan. I'll see if it drops now that a new fan is working.

The new low flow showerhead is in place. I found the flow is so low it seems to be not much better than drooling on me. Rinsing off took a lot longer. I'm glad my previous low flow showerhead didn't get thrown out. It was much better and will likely get reinstalled soon.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Signs of the future?

I recently wrote that the GOP in New Hampshire was crafting bills to overturn the gay marriage law there. House Republican Leader D.J. Bettencourt says now that killing gay marriage is not on their agenda for the year. Some are wondering if that implies it will be on the agenda in 2012 (better to be an early influence prez. politics). Or, since Bettencourt is 27, the younger (more pro-gay) generation is in control and the issue won't come up at all.

Don't tell me how to spend my money

Though gays are feeling good that Don't Ask, Don't Tell has been repealed by Congress (though still in effect for now), not every action by our government is going our way. This is, after all, Obama we're talking about. The latest consternation is that the Dept. of Justice has filed an appeal of the two Massachusetts cases challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) section 3. This is the part that says the federal government can't recognize same-sex marriages.

The cases are before the 1st Circuit Court in Boston. They've already been through district courts where DOMA-III was declared unconstitutional.

Because we're talking discrimination over sexual orientation (and not race) the gov't only has to declare there is a rational reason for its discrimination (not issuing drivers licenses to 15 year olds due to their immaturity is a rational reason for discrimination). The DOJ tosses these ideas out there with explanations and counter arguments by Ari Ezra Waldman:

* Congress wants to maintain the status quo while the various states experiment with marriage. But (1) there was no federal marriage law before DOMA and (2) states are free to experiment with gun laws without any federal recognition. Besides, if states can define marriage any way they want it is inconsistent to claim there is a federal definition.

* Congress wants federal uniformity to avoid gays in Mass. getting federal marriage benefits while gays in Texas don’t. But 16 year olds in some states can get married while in other states they can't and the feds don't care.

Here is where it gets interesting. Alas, I got a bit lost in the arguments. I hope I have represented them accurately.
* According to the Spending Clause of the Constitution (I think I have it right) Congress controls government spending. DOMA-III affects government spending -- the gov't would have to pay marriage benefits to gays.

* The Tenth Amendment says that the powers not listed for the feds are left to the states. But the feds can claim power over marriage through the Spending Clause.

If a court says DOMA-III is unconstitutional then that court is telling Congress how to spend money. Do we want that precedent? What about the precedent of a court saying the feds can overrule the Tenth Amendment? Get a few Tea Party judges into the mix and a ruling that says Congress can't spend money to enforce the Civil Rights Act or one that says federal environmental legislation (no matter how lax) trumps California's efforts could be a big blow to progressive causes.

Are those tradeoffs worth it?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The business model of the con artist

Libertarians like to claim that markets correct themselves without government interference. Therefore we don't need government regulation. That claim is based on some flawed assumptions. Here's why we need regulation.

* Many times consumers are not rational. They base purchasing decisions on a wide variety of irrational impulses -- if I buy that product I'll be just as cool as the model hawking it.

* Even when consumers want to be rational they are faced with situations where it is impossible to get enough reliable information to make intelligent decisions. Celebrity endorsements work well here -- if the product makes that athlete better it will help me too.

* Libertarians are also irrational at times -- just ask them about global warming.

* Those who make stupid choices (such as when they can't get reliable information) deserve the consequences. Bad things don't happen to just the stupid. The standard of justice does (or should not) be based on whether someone has occasionally made stupid purchases. If your economic model is based on people getting ripped off, it is not self-regulating.

Put it another way, only the con artist wants deregulation.

Why don't you stack that kindling right over here

There's been a lot of talk over the last several days about whether the Right's violence laden rhetoric prompted the Tucson gunman. The latest examples include a billboard advertising Rush Limbaugh as a "straight shooter" featuring images of bullet holes. And then there is Palin's website of 20 Democrats that she saw as vulnerable in the last election. The site featured a map with those Congresspersons identified with a gun sight. Strangely, that map disappeared shortly after the shooting and Palin's people tried to say it was a surveyor's scope. Yeah, right. The First Amendment says Palin and everyone else on the Right may say what they want, but with that right comes the responsibility to use words wisely and to take the consequences of what one says.

There is no evidence of a link between this particular rampage and the heated rhetoric. This time. Terrence Heath comments that incendiary language doesn't get very far if there isn't any kindling for it to ignite. But with kindling around a fire can spread, sometimes rapidly.

That reminds me of a discussion I had with my friend and debate partner several years ago about the situation in Israel. He said a true leader works to clear away the kindling from an explosive situation. But the Israeli leader of the time received my friend's scorn because he was figuratively piling up the kindling and soaking it in fuel. And, yes, it has exploded.

So Heath asks the question, "Is there kindling about?" He answers with a resounding yes. Most of that kindling comes from economic inequality, which was causing "melancholy of the soul" even before the Great Recession started. Since 2000 progress in relieving poverty was reversed and inequality has risen sharply. Social mobility has dropped. The few jobs that exist are more likely to be temporary.

That melancholy appears as anxiety and distrust and results in physical and mental ailments. That at a time when mental health services are being cut back. Alcohol use, drug use, and suicide are all up. Add to that mix the sea of handguns now available and we've been lucky so far.

Heath learned as a Boy Scout that one builds a fire for a beneficial purpose (light, warmth, cooking), it is built safely and in a contained area, fueled only for the duration of the purpose, and completely extinguished when no longer needed.

Fiery rhetoric may have a purpose on the campaign trail. But what is said these days doesn't always have a purpose, it is fueled for longer than the stated need, created as a weapon of destruction, or not put out when the purpose is concluded. Responsible use of fiery rhetoric is a help. So is clearing out the kindling.

It seems to me that many conservatives do want all that kindling stacked up. They want a spark to ignite something. But will they be able to control the resulting blaze? And how many people does the blaze burn?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Gay hotspot?

Some maps recently caught my attention. Yes, I like maps.

The first is based on the latest US Census data collected last spring. It shows population change for the country and by state for every census since 1910. Yup, in the 2010 data Michigan is the only state to lose population. There is also data on population density and congressional apportionments. Roll your mouse over a state to see the graph for that state.

The second map can be a real time-waster. The New York Times put together Census data (estimates) from 2005-2009 to show population density and race (at least the categories in the 2000 census). When zoomed way in it has one dot for every 25 people, meaning one can see racial data almost per block (though I'm puzzled about the dots in the park across the street from my parent's house). Sliding the mouse over the map will show racial percentages for census tracts or counties. When zoomed out it has one dot for every 25,000 people. In this view there are large sections of the country with very few dots -- some counties in Wyoming have only 15,000 residents and don't get a dot.

There are also maps showing other kinds of data. Of course, I took a look at the percentage of households with same-sex couples. Amazingly, the hotspot for gay couples in the Detroit area isn't Ferndale (3%) or Royal Oak (4%) but Ecorse (14%). Ecorse? Goodness, the famous Castro district in San Francisco is only 17% gay couples.

And the third is from Facebook. One of the interns at the company drew lines on a global map representing the friend network of it's half billion users. The eastern half of the US and Europe are quite bright, South America and Africa are vague outlines with a few bright spots, only the eastern edge of Australia plus Perth are lit up, and, other than India, Asia is almost completely missing.

The world population is expected to reach 7 billion by the end of the year. National Geographic has started a series of articles about that milestone (one that should be observed, but not commemorated). My dad showed me the first of those when I visited at Christmas. As part of that, National Geographic created a 3 minute video about the growth in population.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Bogged down in the courts

The Calif. gay marriage ban is before the 9th Circuit Court at the moment. One of the questions in the case is if those who pushed the ban have the ability to represent it in federal court if the state representatives (Attorney General) decline. The 9th Circuit said that question depends on state law, so asked the Calif. Supremes their opinion on the issue.

That may be prudent on the part of the 9th Circuit -- lessen the chance their ruling is overturned when it gets to the US Supremes (and it will) -- but it also means the timeline to a resolution is longer. The State Supremes need time to put it on their calendar, accept briefs, hear arguments, and write an opinion. The 9th Circuit then needs time to include that ruling in their own opinion. The case is currently before 3 judges of the 9th Circuit and the losing side can request that a much larger group of judges hears the case. That will take more time. Then the US Supremes…

Meaning it is unlikely all this will be resolved by the 2012 elections. It is time to plan how to gather enough signatures to get the repeal on the ballot and to figure out how to counteract the lies our opposition will spew (not all that hard -- they use the same lies every time). We were close last time. A few more bigots have died and a few more gay friendly youth can vote. And a few more have had their minds changed and are ready to vote with us.

Suspicion, fear, and exclusion as a priority

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is where pro-corporate libertarian political conservatives and their social moralists meet each year to encourage (snipe at) each other and plan their political and culture war attacks. Of course, each year part of the unofficial program is the determination of who is and who isn't conservative enough.

Last year, GOPround, a conservative gay group, crashed the party, causing all kinds of conniptions. This year GOProud is back. Various Fundie groups are crying foul and declared they will boycott the event.

There are parts of the GOP coalition who put suspicion, fear, and exclusion at the top of their list of priorities. Other parts of the coalition see that as no way to lead. The battle might be worthy of the popcorn to watch.

After hate

Arno Michaels found violence thrilling as a child. He was a bully and would pick fights. The skinhead-white supremacist subculture attracted him because it allowed him to lash out at the world. He soon embraced the skinhead ideas and was off down the trail of hate, reinforced by the paranoia the white supremacists taught.

He didn't have to prove he wasn't black, but that culture constantly demanded he prove he wasn't gay. The easiest proof was to seek out some gays and bash them. He had a gay uncle who died in a mental hospital. It took a long time for him to understand his uncle's mental problems were due to ostracism, not because he was gay.

A buddy of Michaels was murdered in a street fight. Michaels realized that prison could take him away from his daughter, so he left the skinhead movement. Without the constant reinforcement his paranoia and hate faded. As he got to know people of formerly forbidden cultures he discovered how much more fun life could be. Michaels has now written the book, "My Life After Hate." It highlights the need for us humans to give and receive compassion. Michaels now takes part in anti-violence and anti-bullying programs.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Combining time travel with mind reading

A lawyer in Calif. interviewed Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supremes. As part of it, Scalia said the Constitution doesn't require discrimination of women and gays -- but it doesn't prohibit it either. If Congress wants to pass anti-discrimination laws, that's fine. If they don't, that's fine too. Don't like the way someone is treated? Convince your fellow citizens to pressure Congress to get a law passed. Originalism isn't perfect, but it has answers for a lot of things -- the answers are so clear that many times he doesn't have to read the case briefs.

Evidently, tyranny of the majority is just fine with him. As long as nobody tries to discriminate against white guys.

Responders are, of course, appalled that someone so high in government thinks discrimination is just fine. Especially in 2011.

Scalia's ideas are dangerous because of people like the incoming Governor Scott of Florida. He started off his term by saying:

It shall be the policy of my administration to prohibit discrimination in employment based on race, gender, creed, color, or national origin, and to ensure equal opportunity for all individuals currently employed in, and individuals seeking employment in, my administration.

Since all those categories are already listed in national anti-discrimination laws, why bother to say it? It's his way of saying (without actually saying) he very much will discriminate against the categories that were not listed: sexual orientation, gender expression, and disability.

Timothy Kincaid of the Box Turtle Bulletin takes a look at the originalism that Scalia claims to follow. It seems Scalia is as selective as the Fundie view of the Bible. The originalist view of the Constitution is that a right not mentioned is a right that doesn't exist. It seems even rights clearly in black and white are also seen as non-existent. Their claim is that the modern "interpretation of the Constitution should be based on what reasonable persons living at the time of its adoption would have declared the ordinary meaning of the text to be."

Got a problem with that? Yeah, says Kincaid. Scalia has to make three broad assumptions for his view of originalism to work.

1. "That the Constitution is not a document of guiding principles, but a law text which applies only to the specific intentions designed to address specific issues." If one is truly an originalist, those issues are confined to the original 13 states and the goods and services that existed in 1789.

2. "That the drafters of the 14th Amendment were careless." The 14th Amendment, the one about rights being universal, clearly says "any person." It seems Scalia believes what the authors meant to say and carelessly didn't was, "any male citizen landowner."

3. "That the men who wrote and voted for the 14th Amendment could not espouse principles grander than they personally could aspire." There are a lot of people in our history whose beliefs exceeded their abilities. Washington was troubled by slavery, yet owned slaves. The battle for women's rights was well underway in 1868 when the 14th was adopted. So the Constitution holds guiding principles which those at the time knew were correct, even though society couldn't reach them yet.

A commenter adds a fourth assumption. Scalia understands and can correctly choose the wide variety of reasons why a lawmaker might have voted for the amendment.

Several others note that the Constitution does not say that a right must be listed to exist. Instead it says, "among the rights are…"

If the writers of the 14th, in 1868, knew and correctly understood homosexuality (which wasn't even identified and named until a few years later) would they have added the phrase "except gays" to their new amendment?

So Scalia is basing his understanding of the Constitution not on guiding principles nor on the actual text, but on his "stereotype of the mindset of a mid-eighteenth century congressman might be." He would need a time machine and be a mind reader to know that. Scalia wants the Constitution to confirm his own biases. Originalism is only his methodology. The same way a Fundie treats the Bible.

The blessings of a shower

I had a home remodeling contractor come this past Monday morning to start a three-day job of replacing my main bathroom ceiling because the paint had begun to bubble and the drywall was soft. The first step was to wash off the mold with bleach. He found bleach didn't wash it off completely. He then apologized for not attempting this while he gave me the estimate.

Anyone familiar with bathroom mold knows what that means -- the mold had burrowed into the drywall and all of it in the bathroom would have to be removed (well, unless I wanted to repeat the process in 6 months). So a three-day repair suddenly became a seven-day gut and rebuild. Yes, gut -- remove everything down to the studs.

The cause of this mess was because the bathroom fan, which I had put in 14 years ago, was not vented correctly and was not strong enough for the size room (though I was told it was at the time). The contractor later found that extra insulation above the bathroom had not been removed from its plastic liner, which meant it didn't dry out properly, and had also gotten quite moldy. He told me he was amazed I'm not sick from the mold.

After his news about the stubborn mold we had discussion about what could be saved and what couldn't. The house was built in 1960, 50 years old. The tile on the floor was original and many tiles were chipped (the pattern is still available, though is now "retro"). The tub and the toilet were lemon yellow and the toilet was not a water-efficient model. The vanity was built into the wall and could not be saved (it wasn't that special anyway). The sinks (white!) and faucets were only 10 years old and were kept. The large mirror and medicine cabinet will also be reused.

The work didn't start on Monday. The contractor called back a few hours later with a new estimate. Work began Tuesday morning. He and his crew ripped everything out.

I was handed a list of things to choose -- vanity cabinets, floor tile, shower controls, vanity lights, fan-light combo, shower and towel rods -- so I have spent several hours in Lowe's looking over my options. I've bought or chosen most things, but I need to go back for some more.

The good news in all this was I have time this week to get it done. Classes don't resume until Tuesday. The contractor didn't have another job scheduled this week. He came highly recommended, so I felt I could trust him when the budget was suddenly four times larger. He is also thorough enough that he found the moldy insulation and removed it. There were lots of little things in that bathroom that needed improvement, but none bad enough to warrant the expense. They're all taken care of now.

Alas, with a rushed schedule and in need of a working shower by Tuesday there have been a few annoying moments when he has said, "I need you to decide this right now."

Drywall was installed yesterday. The mud guy was here today and will be back tomorrow. That means a lot will happen on Sunday and Monday.

I visited a friend for a shower this evening. It was refreshing. The next one should be Tuesday morning -- at the college fitness center if necessary.

Modern shower controls have one handle that controls temperature with the assumption that pressure would be constant. Adding a second handle for pressure control adds another $100. At a time I was feeling particularly stressed I talked to the Lowe's guy in the bath department. My new kitchen faucet manages both controls in one inexpensive handle. It's amazing that shower controls can't manage the trick. He said it has to do with scald prevention but didn't know details.

So with no pressure control I went looking for low-flow shower heads. Yup, that would give me two of them. The display of shower heads seemed to describe each one of them in glowing terms that implied how extravagant its water usage would be (I didn't check flow ratings). All this in an era of conservation? I did find a few that emphasized their green credentials and bought one.

I've heard that composting toilets are a good idea, so checked into them. They're about eight times the price of a standard low-flow model. My contractor has never dealt with them before. I wish I had the time in this project to do enough research into them. Alas, that will have to wait.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

I'm sure we can discuss it in a civil manner

I saw a really neat flowchart for having a discussion with an anti-gay person while keeping sane. Alas, it was an image file and the blogger software shrunk it down so small that it couldn't be read. So I'll have to refer you to the original. It talks about having discussions with Fundies about God, but the discussion guidelines are the same.

I'm tired of being the punching bag

The GOP swept both houses of the New Hampshire legislature last November. They are already crafting bills to repeal the NH gay marriage law. The Dem governor will veto any such bill. The question then is how moderate are these NH legislators and are there enough of them to prevent a veto override?

How much of the Calif. gay marriage case be applicable to New Hampshire?

National gay rights organizations didn't do much to prevent 3 justices from being tossed in Iowa and don't seem to be gearing up to help out New Hampshire. The statewide groups are gearing up, but are no match for the heavily funded steamroller of the National Organization for Marriage, who (no doubt) helped get a number of GOP legislators elected and are waiting for their payback.

Please. We aren't a threat to you. Leave us alone.

If a fifth grader can understand it…

A blizzard shuts down New York and pundits start shouting, "See I told you global warming was a hoax!" Here's an explanation of why it is global warming that is causing these huge snowstorms. Most fifth graders should get it.

The normal cycle: water evaporates from the ocean. Cold artic air makes that moisture fall as snow.

The difference today: There is less polar ice, thus more open ocean from which water can evaporate. When the cold air hits it there is more moisture to fall as snow.

Note the snow has been falling where it always does (Atlanta might object to that statement), we're just getting a lot more of it.

Class dismissed.