Friday, July 28, 2006

Sensitivity Malfunction

Babytalk magazine, a publication that I don't find myself reading very much, has recently been criticized for the following cover:

Yes, ladies and gentlemen. A baby sucking on a nipple. The horror, the horror.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Elephant Gnaws at Its Foot

When mammals are caught in traps, they will sometimes chew off their own foot to free themselves. The Republicans and neo-conservatives are doing that now.

William F. Buckley, considered by some to be the father of neo-conservativism, has proclaimed that the war in Iraq is a disaster and Bush's presidency to be a failure:

Buckley's comments have been compared to Walter Cronkite's assessment that the Vietnam War was unwinnable. If that is true, it would signal the death of any mainstream support, even within partisan denominations, of the Iraq War. What that means for White House policy decisions is unclear, since this administration has clearly demonstrated that they simply do not care what Americans think ( See this, this, and this).

In other news, Republican committee chairman Arlen Specter is leading a fight against signing statements, addendums or exemptions that Bush puts on some of the bills that he signs. Most notoriously, Bush added a signing statement to the ban on US forces engaging in torture that essentially undermined the entire bill. This kind of development is encouraging because it indicates that there are Republicans who are not drinking the Kool-Aid.

The Republican controlled congress passed a bill to expand stem cell research, which Bush promptly vetoed. Coincidently, this is the one and ONLY bill that Bush has vetoed in his five and half years in office.

Bush's approval ratings have sunk so low and his methods proven so disastrous that even the hardliners are abandoning him. At the very least their leave would guarantee that Bush would be a lame duck president for the rest of his term, marginalizing the harm he could do. What this really reveals, however, is that the Republicans set themselves in a trap when they supported Bush in 2000 and 2004, and his blundering ways have now put the entire party at risk.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Rise Up Against the Bovine Killers

I blogged recently about my thoughts on the smoking ban and the reasoning behind it, namely the public heath angle. Now another issue is on the verge of overshadowing the dangers of smoking and drinking:

Treating obesity-related disorders costs as much or more than illnesses caused by aging, smoking and problem drinking.

It accounts for 2 percent of the national health expenditure in France and Australia, more than 3 percent in Japan and Portugal and 4 percent in the Netherlands.

A review of research into the economic causes and consequences of obesity presented at the 14th European Congress on Obesity showed that in 2003 up to $96.7 billion was spent on obesity problems in the United States.

Since the local government has decided that, under the banner of public health, it can get between consumers and potentially harmful products or sellers of said product, is it possible that the Mankato City Council will pass ordinances on the sale of dairy products or perhaps mandate daily exercise for its citizens? After all, they seem to care so much about our state of health, it would only make sense that they would protect us from the evil farmers selling cheese and beef. Perhaps the Minnesota state legislature could pass a law requiring farmers to brand their cows with a huge skull and crossbones so that children will know the dangers of these bovine killers.

This is not an entirely outlandish idea. Cigarettes are taxed under the banner of a "sin tax" and now there is a desire to create a fat tax. The trouble is, when local and federal government tax indulgences like cigarettes and regulate the operating hours and procedures of taverns and strip clubs while giving tax breaks to single mothers and churches, they are making the determination for the rest of us that children and churches are good, but beer and strippers are bad. Of course, I could not disagree more.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Know Thy Enemy

Here is a news story on the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian lobby that is emerging as the strongest and most effective voice in the attempt to erase the barrier between church and state. An excerpt:

The group has been battling embryonic stem cell research in Missouri and won a Supreme Court stay preventing the removal of California's 29-foot Mount Soledad cross. In Florida, where saving the life of brain-damaged Terri Schiavo became a crusade, the group supported efforts to nourish her.

"What we are really trying to protect are the things this country was founded on," said D. James Kennedy, leader of Florida's Coral Ridge Ministries and one of the prominent Christian conservatives who fashioned the alliance in 1993 as a sharp stick in the national culture debate.

That is not how opponents see the organization. While crediting the ADF with training troops for battles once fought by a haphazard assortment of government lawyers and often ill-prepared volunteers, critics question the alliance's commitment to tolerance and the Constitution.

"They're not for some form of generic religious freedom. They're for Christian superiority, that Christians take over the courts," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "They are living in this fantasy world where the majority religion, Christianity, is claimed to be literally under attack."

I have addressed this delusion of persecution before, but the ADF seems to be taking things to a new level, even beyond the paths of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, because of their legal activism.

This item on religious freedom on the organization's website was enlightening:

Free exercise of religion is the first and most fundamental right of Americans protected in the Bill of Rights. It is the most basic and inalienable of all human rights. However, the right to freely exercise one's faith has never been more threatened in our nation than it is today. And the rights of Christians are especially vulnerable.

For more than 50 years, the ACLU and other radical activist groups have attempted to eliminate public expression of our nation's faith and heritage. They have done this through fear, intimidation, disinformation, and the filing of lawsuits (or threats of lawsuits) that would:

  • Eliminate Christian and historic faith symbols from government documents, buildings, and monuments
  • Ban public prayer in schools and at school functions
  • Deny Christians the right to use public facilities that are open to other groups
  • Prevent Christians from expressing their faith in the workplace
Through attacks like these, the ACLU and its allies have sought to limit the spread and influence of the Gospel in the United States.

That is quite a bait-and-switch and it corroborates Barry Lynn's assessment about the organization. The ADF starts with a defense of the Free Exercise Clause but then takes a stand against the Establishment Clause. This kind of cherry picking often occurs when conservatives appeal to the Bible for moral arguments and so it is no surprise that they do it on legal issues as well.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Obama's Religious Speech

Last week, Illinois Senator Barack Obama spoke on the role of religion in politics. His speech may be one of the most thoughtful tracts on religion and politics given by a politician in many years. Here are excerpts:

For some time now, there has been plenty of talk among pundits and pollsters that the political divide in this country has fallen sharply along religious lines. Indeed, the single biggest "gap" in party affiliation among white Americans today is not between men and women, or those who reside in so-called Red States and those who reside in Blue, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don't.

Conservative leaders have been all too happy to exploit this gap, consistently reminding evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design.

Democrats, for the most part, have taken the bait. At best, we may try to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that - regardless of our personal beliefs - constitutional principles tie our hands. At worst, there are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word "Christian" describes one's political opponents, not people of faith.

Now, such strategies of avoidance may work for progressives when our opponent is Alan Keyes. But over the long haul, I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in people's lives -- in the lives of the American people -- and I think it's time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.
* * *
Each day, it seems, thousands of Americans are going about their daily rounds - dropping off the kids at school, driving to the office, flying to a business meeting, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets - and they're coming to the realization that something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough.
They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They're looking to relieve a chronic loneliness, a feeling supported by a recent study that shows Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than ever before. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them - that they are not just destined to travel down that long highway towards nothingness.
* * *
Because when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations towards one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome - others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.

In other words, if we don't reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, then the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Alan Keyeses will continue to hold sway.

More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem here is rhetorical - if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.
* * *
I am not suggesting that every progressive suddenly latch on to religious terminology - that can be dangerous. Nothing is more transparent than inauthentic expressions of faith. As Jim has mentioned, some politicians come and clap -- off rhythm -- to the choir. We don't need that.

In fact, because I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality, I would rather have someone who is grounded in morality and ethics, and who is also secular, affirm their morality and ethics and values without pretending that they're something they're not. They don't need to do that. None of us need to do that.

But what I am suggesting is this - secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
* * *
While I've already laid out some of the work that progressive leaders need to do, I want to talk a little bit about what conservative leaders need to do -- some truths they need to acknowledge.

For one, they need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn't the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn't want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.

Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.
* * *
Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.
* * *
So we all have some work to do here. But I am hopeful that we can bridge the gaps that exist and overcome the prejudices each of us bring to this debate. And I have faith that millions of believing Americans want that to happen. No matter how religious they may or may not be, people are tired of seeing faith used as a tool of attack. They don't want faith used to belittle or to divide. They're tired of hearing folks deliver more screed than sermon. Because in the end, that's not how they think about faith in their own lives.

Unfortunately, the media has distorted his message. In an attempt to distill the content of his speech into bite-size, bottom-crawl headlines, the mainstream media sources have misreported his message. (See this and this.) Others have sought to correct the interpretation of his message. Hopefully Obama will continue to make comments of this sort and the repetition will overcome the reductionist tendencies of the media.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Don't Smoke, You Might Enjoy It

On July 1st, a smoking ban went into effect in Mankato. Just before the ban went into effect, the Surgeon General released a report that said "air cleaners and other mechanical devices are ineffective in removing carcinogens and other pollutants from the air. The report says that second-hand smoke causes premature death and disease among adults and children, in addition to coronary heart disease and lung cancer."

As a non-smoker I was not very concerned with Mankato's smoking ban, but I was opposed to it. Not that I approve of smoking, but the principle of the restriction concerns me. As this was cast by anti-smoking activists as a matter of public health, the smoking ban was also a property rights issue. With this ban, the city of Mankato is saying that it can restrict the activities and policies inside of a privately owned establishment.

It is true that we already have a precedent for said restrictions and intrusions by local and federal government. Bars and restaurants have to conform to basic rules about sanitation. Certain drugs are illegal and we are prohibited from using or possessing them. We restrict the consumption of alcohol in motorized vehicles. Alcoholic beverages can only be sold between certain hours on certain days of the week and only by someone in possession of a liquor license to a consumer of a given age.

I can agree with rules about sanitation in restaurants and with prohibitations against alcohol consumption in vehicles but I disagree with the restrictions on alcohol distribution and the criminalization of drug use or possession. My agreement and disagreement with our laws are based on personal liberty, which is fitting given that tomorrow is the Fourth of July.

While I do agree with a New Deal view of economics (that is to say it is desirable and appropriate for the government to regulate the marketplace), this is based on the protection of the workforce. With the advent of labor laws, unions, and watch dog organizations, our corporations are being held in check against many of the abuses of the past. I am also a firm believer in the Bill of Rights, namely freedom of speech, the separation of church and state, protection from search and seizure, and the right to bear arms.

The smoking ban and rules against selling alcohol on Sunday are not based on public safety. The underlying idea here is sin. The supporters of the smoking ban hold certain unspoken tenants: (1) Health represents an inherent good, (2) Health is defined as living for as long as possible, (3) It is the duty of the government to create policies that promote health and restrict behaviors or access to the means of shortening life.

These points are where I must disagree with the anti-smoking crowd. While it is true that government is intended to protect us, democracy, if we hold it to be important, is based on freedom of choice. This includes the freedom to knowingly engage in behavior that harms ourselves.

It is a truism that most of the things in life that are pleasurable gain their pleasure by their harmful or sinful nature. Alcohol and cigarettes are not healthy, but they do bring pleasure to our lives. In our Christian culture, sex remains a great taboo. All of the so-called deadly sins--pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, sloth--bring about pleasure. And pleasure is the only thing that represents an inherent good. To engage in pleasure and stimulate the senses represents what it means to be happy.

The restrictions on the quality and preparation of red meat, automobile fuel efficiency and cleanliness, and the consumption of alcohol in an automobile have to do with public safety and make sense. They are protecting otherwise intelligent people from stupid people. They represent instrumental goods.

Because most pleasures manifest themselves in things that do not lengthen our lives, to be healthy as the anti-smoking crowd defines it, means to live a life absent of the most basic pleasures. This means living a life is robbed of its fun. It means to exist but not to enjoy it.

The principles behind rules such as the smoking ban have nothing to do with improving the quality of life of the people who submit to them. They are about controlling the populace by denying them pleasure.

This is my concern with regulations like the smoking ban. Passage of such a ban allows less choice over my life. The intention is not to increase the pleasure in my life, only to increase the amount of time between my birth and my death. But if I do not enjoy the space in between, what is the point of lengthening it at all?