Archive for the ‘Social Issues’ Category

He’s Not God

Monday, June 29th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

I don’t know if it’s the central role the President plays in our contemporary political narratives, or a general desire to find one person to blame (for which The President is obviously a better stand-in than The Congress), but the tendency to blame Barack Obama for what are essentially Congressional, or structural, failings seems somewhat bizarre to me, if somewhat understanable, particularly coming from people who presumably spend enough time observing politics to understand the systemic problems. This post from Whiskey Fire seems representative of the genre:

The economy is in shambles and people realize that we need safety net services like extended unemployment and maybe a government health insurance option. The time is ripe to strike while the iron is hot and Obama is shrugging his shoulders and saying ” I don’t know what do you guys think we should do?” Spineless, like a jellyfish. They call themselves Centrists, but to me they are conservative reactionaries, including Obama. He seems to be waffling on all the important issues that he received my vote and that of many other liberals to address.

On health care he is providing little leadership and seems to be waiting for the lowest common denominator, in this case both parties, to decide what it will allow so that it looks like something is changing while allowing the insurance company fuckers to continue raping us all wholesale. He has made no movement on repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and has completely left the gay community to hang out in the wind on the issue of marriage. Guantanamo is humming along with no real trials in site for the people detained there. Lest we forget, that 16 month withdrawal timetable in Iraq seems to have evaporated.

Now, I can empathize with the frustration, but putting all of this squarely on Obama is somewhere between unfair and childish. To take the points individually:

1. On the question of a timeline for withdrawing from Iraq, we do have a timeline in place, as part of the Status of Forces Agreement Agreement with the Iraqi government. It’s not exactly the plan Obama proposed, but it’s close enough that the costs of a new government unilaterally abrogating agreements with other countries would have outweighed the benefit of going with the plan Obama was proposing during the campaign. And really, this is one of those times where political observers should take pains to note that sometimes events change plans. When Obama was a candidate proposing a 16 month timetable for withdrawal, SOFA was not in place. By the time he was inaugurated, it had been agreed to by both the US and Iraqi government. So this isn’t so much an example of a politician saying one thing and doing another, so much as it’s an example of changing plans based on a new circumstance. And people who rightly mocked Bush for his “stay the course” attitude and complained about the hubris of unilateralism run amok during the last 8 years shouldn’t be complaining that the new President won’t rigidly adhere to a peviously outlined plan made under a different set of facts, nor unilaterally abrogate an agreement with another government.

2. As far as Gitmo goes, I don’t really see how you can make this kind of a complaint without so much as noting in passing that Obama asked Congress for the money to facilitate closing the place, but Congress rejected it. Regardless of the other issues surrounding Obama’s performance here, Congress certainly isn’t without substantial blame.

3. I haven’t written much about Obama and gay rights, mostly because I don’t care to challenge what seems to be a pretty comprehensive truism at this point, and because my argument against it isn’t really that riveting. Bsically, I just don’t see what Obama can actually do. The progressive line on gay rights strikes me as very similar to the neocon line on Iran; if only Obama would say X, everything would be awesome. The notion that Obama can unilaterally end DADT is just false. The UCMJ is law, and as such it requires an act of Congress to change it. Obama could take a tougher line on it, but he’s just not likely to walk into that minefield while healthcare reform is working its way through Congress. And he could theoretically issue a stop-loss order to prevent the discharging of indiduals found guilty under it, but that would leave the policy in place, officially, and probably destroy any will on the Hill to repeal it altogether, which doesn’t strike me as being desireable from a social justice standpoint. On the question of gay marriage, the President has even less authority. Obviously he can’t order the states to recognie same-sex marriage, and it’s not even clear to me that Congress would have the authority to pass such a bill. Unsatisfying as it may be, the only real way the federal government can move anything forward on gay marriage is through the courts, which Obama has no control over, short of appointing judges, and through a Constitutional amendment, which the President has nothing to do with, and which is also highly unlikely to be successful. So while I can appreciate that the lack of progress on gay rights is frustrating, I really don’t see what the President, any President, could realistically do to change that fact given the present circumstances.

4. Finally, on healthcare, this is just a common refrain at this point; the bill has to go through Congress, and there’s nothing the executive can do to affect that. He can threaten to veto an ultimate bill, but that’s not going to work, because it just won’t be believeable, if for no other reason than that the White House needs a bill much more than Congress does. But this would be the case even if Obama were taking a more overtly active role in public; this would still be Congress’s baby, and the President would lack any real ability to substantively affect the sausage making.

On the one hand, I’m sure this all sounds like nit-picking, unjustified Obama defense. But I don’t really think that’s the issue. If you’re looking to “pressure” people i politics, it’s very important you pressure the right people. That goes for laying blame as well. If progressives are routinely blaming failings of Congress, or of the underlying system, on the White House, that just leaves you aiming at a target who can’t really respond to your criticism, because they’re not the problem, and it also deflects attention from the real problem spot, as well as giving Congress more cover to continue what they’re doing, because they’re not catching the heat for it.

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Ross Douthat is a Lightweight

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

Yes, Ross Douthat’s column today sucks hard. And yes, Ross Douthat sucks hard. I’ve never understood what people see in Douthat. I guess there was something of a novelty act in Grand New Party, arguing that the GOP needed to do more for working class people, but having read the book, I can attest that it sucks just as hard as everything else Douthat has ever written, and for fairly predictable reasons; Douthat resorts to conventional right-wing tropes about cultural elitism and social issues. The economic argument made for a nice selling point for the notion that the theory was different, I suppose, but it’s simply not the meat of the book.

Anyway, Douthat’s column today simply makes no sense. Hilzoy does a nice takedown, and I’ll just reiterate that the final point, that we could reach “common ground” in a situation wherein pro-life crazies would stop killing doctors if liberals agree to heavily “regulate” second trimester abortions is complete nonsense. And yes, Douthat also has his facts wrong.

I’d also ask why I’m supposed to feel bad that the media institution that’s paying Douthat for the priviledge of printing this nonsense is facing financial difficulty? It seems to me that if they want to cut some money, getting rid of the Bill Kristol Seat on the Op-Ed page would be a good place to start; it would save them money, and make their readers smarter for it.

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The Unyielding Weakness of Strict Constructionism

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

Larison goes to the well of the weakest of “strict constructionist” tropes:

The amendment process is a somewhat indirectly democratic means to make changes to that system. This makes the amendment process a slow, drawn-out, but nonetheless democratic remedy to perceived flaws in the system. The amendment process is extremely slow and arduous because there was once a quaint idea that dramatic changes in the power and scope of government could and should only be achieved through this process. Likewise, there was an assumption that there needed to be numerous obstacles to amending the fundamental law to make it more difficult for majoritarian tyrannies to strip people of their constitutional protections. Once the Court began discovering rights, or, if we want to be less pejorative, extending the protections of existing rights in new ways, what had once been within the power of state legislatures and electorates to regulate as they saw fit was placed behind a series of huge obstacles that cannot be overcome without the building up of super-majorities throughout the entire country in favor of a certain position. That would all be well enough if the right in question were not so constitutionally dubious and morally outrageous, since this process is supposed to be extremely difficult and it is supposed to require the support of most of the people, but the so-called right we’re talking about is both of these things.

The key point here is the notion of “discovering rights” which, as Larison’s admission that the phrase is a bit pejorative belies, is the idea that such rights are not, in fact, protected by the Constitution. It’s an argument you’ve probably heard any random talk radio host make at some point or another, something along the lines of “show me where the Constitution says anything about a right to privacy.” Of course, excepting the 4th amendments protections against unwarranted search and seizure, the Constitution doesn’t say anything about privacy, or abortion, or owning a pet, or being able to choose which brand of gum you want to purchase. But there is the 9th amendment, which says, and I quote, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” In other words, one of the amendments in the Bill of Rights says in no uncertain terms that there are rights held by the people under the Constitution that are not specifically mentioned in the Constitution. But it doesn’t give any idea as to what those might be, which makes it hard to argue anything concretely under the 9th amendment. I can make the argument that there’s a right to anything I want there to be a right to under the 9th amendment, and there’s no way to definitively argue against me. At the same time, there’s no way to prove my affirmative argument either. You can make a fairly reasonable argument that this fact makes such a system inoperable in practice, since the only way to determine these questions is by the whim of the judiciary, or society, at the moment, which is anathema to the general theory of written law, and that a standard f only respecting specifically enumerated rights is more desireable from a social order standpoint, but doing so requires the person making the argument to wholly ignore the plain text of the 9th amendment, which obviously doesn’t really square with the way “strict constructionism” is commonly presented.

The bright-line-rules standard preferred by Scalia and Thomas, outlined most recently yesterday in Caperton, fails in similar ways. Roberts’s dissent, as Paul Campos notes, basically argues that no standards are better than vaguely defined “arbitrary” standards, but again, this pays no attention to the structuring of the Constitution, which at various points resorts to undefined subjective  language. The 8th amendment, for example, simply states that, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” How should we define “excessive,” “cruel,” or “unusual?” The Constitution doesn’t say. And yet it explicitly bans such sanctions. Again, it might not be as cut-and-dry as the Scalias and Thomases of the world would like things to be, but it is in the Constitution.  

On the latter point, Larison’s logic simply doesn’t follow. If “the right in question is so Constitutionally dubiousand morally outrageous” as Larison accepts abortion rights are as a given, then we should expect that it would be easier to cultivate a super-majority in these cases than in other, less egregious, ones. That it isn’t suggests that reality is not quite what the right imagines it to be.

The Tragedy of Shelby Steele

Monday, June 8th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

Shelby Steele has a column in today’s Wall Street Journal that is, amazingly, quite possibly the single most pathetic thing Steele has ever written. Adam Serwer says that Steele has gotten “predictable,” but I’m not sure that’s right. For one thing, Steele has always been predictable. He’s only got one trick, after all. No, at this point Steele has just become dishonest. If before you could make the case that he was being obtuse or making problematic, broad based claims, reading this effort, there’s simply no way to argue Steele doesn’t understand exactly what he’s doing in getting basic facts wrong, things he’s gotten wrong before.

For example, Steele continues to downplay President Obama with the same rhetoric he was using before the election, even implying that he was correct then:

I have called Mr. Obama a bound man because he cannot win white support without bargaining and he cannot maintain minority support without playing the very identity politics that injure him with whites. The latter form of politics is grounded in being what I call a challenger — i.e., someone who presumes that whites are racist until they prove otherwise by granting preferences of some kind to minorities. Whites quietly seethe at challengers like Jesse Jackson who use the moral authority of their race’s historic grievance to muscle for preferential treatment. Mr. Obama has been loved precisely because he was an anti-Jackson, a bargainer who grants them innocence before asking for their support.

Now, the most obvious intellectual problem here is that Steele doesn’t note that the sub-title to his “bound man” critique included a cliam that Obama “can’t win,” which would seem to be significantly undermined by the fact that Obama, you know, won. And what’s more, Steele isn’t even making an explanation as to why he was really right, even though he seemed to be spectacularly wrong, he’s just disappearing the fact altogether. Secondly, Steele is continuing the rhetoric from his post-election column that Obama somehow seduced white people into voting for him, even though Obama didn’t improve much on the level of support John Kerry or Al Gore enjoyed among white voters. Again, it’s not that Steele is “wrong,” it’s that he’s explaining why something happened, even though it didn’t happen. And he’s just pretending no one ever pointed out that he was just wrong about the facts of the matter (which he might believe, since it really wouldn’t make sense for Steele to read criticism of his parlor act, would it?).

Even more dishonestly, Steele rips Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” remark out of context even more egregiously than most other conservatives have:

Throughout her career Judge Sotomayor has demonstrated a Hispanic chauvinism so extreme that it sometimes crosses into outright claims of racial supremacy, as in 2001 when she said in a lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, “a wise Latina woman . . . would more often than not reach a better conclusion [as a judge] than a white male.”

Steele doesn’t even note that the broader context of the speech related to racial discrimination cases, he eliminates Sotomayor’s reference to the differing experiences of people of different identity groups. So yes, in this context, you certainly could come away thinking that Sotomayor was making the claim that Latina women are inherently superior to white men, but this isn’t Sotomayor’s quote. It’s an edited snippet of the quote that drastically changes the meaning of the remark. Steele isn’t even attempting to provide an accurate depiction of Sotomayor’s opinion, he’s hacking her words up in such a way as to change what she said, and he knows it. So far, this is the first time I’ve seen someone of any political persuasion edit out the “experiences” part of the quote, and it’s not as though this hasn’t been remarked upon heavily. This is just intellectual dishonesty of the highest form, which shouldn’t really surprise anyone who’s familiar with the bulk of Steele’s work, but what’s really striking is the degree to which Shelby isn’t even trying to hide it anymore. It’s right out there, and it’s extremely lazy in its construction.

Of course, this is still Shelby Steele, so the cheap racism is still there because, well, that’s what Shelby Steele exists to provide:

The Sotomayor nomination commits the cardinal sin of identity politics: It seeks to elevate people more for the political currency of their gender and ethnicity than for their individual merit. (Here, too, is the ugly faithlessness in minority merit that always underlies such maneuverings.) Mr. Obama is promising one thing and practicing another, using his interracial background to suggest an America delivered from racial corruption even as he practices a crude form of racial patronage. From America’s first black president, and a man promising the “new,” we get a Supreme Court nomination that is both unoriginal and hackneyed.

But of course, Steele doesn’t actually demonstrate that Sotomayor lacks individual merit. He predictably brings up the Ricci case but, also predictably, does so without making any mention of the relevant statutes or precedent. Like every other conservative commentary on the case, the decision is simply taken to be wrong for the simple reason that conservatives don’t approve of the outcome. But other than that, there’s nothing. Steele doesn’t make the case that Sotomayor lacks formal qualifications (because that would be too absurd even for him), he doesn’t dig through her career to find any sort of example that would show her to be unqualified in a substantive manner, in part because that’s not what Shelby Steele’s work is built around. Rather, because Sotomayor is a woman and a racial minority, it must be taken for granted that affirmative action is at work he. An hispanic female is ipso facto less qualified than a white man, the same way any other minority is in Shelby Steele’s world. Minorities in general, and black people in particular, don’t get ahead in that world on their own merits, unless, of course, they’re conservatives. Someone ought to ask Shelby Steele what he thinks of Michael Steele, and whether or not the latter would have his current position if the Democrats hadn’t elected the nation’s first black President.

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The Tiller Murder

Monday, June 1st, 2009

by Brien Jackson

Kansas doctor George Tiller was murdered in his church as he was passing out bulletins to arriving congregation members yesterday, culminating a campaign to harrass, threaten, and attack the doctor who was one of the few people in the country willing to perform third trimester abortions. He was shot by one George Roeper, a bit of an all purpose wingnut who was active in anti-choice group Operation Rescue, a tax protestor, and part of the sovereign citizen movement.

It’s of course ironic that the “pro-life” movement has spent so much time trying to get Tiller (Tiller was shot in 1993, his clinic was bombed in 1986, and he’s been the target of violent rhetoric for nearly 3 decades). Tiller’s practice was a tragic one, but not having a Tiller would have been just as, if not more, tragic. And it really does shine a new light on the wingnutosphere’s collective freak out over the DHS report warning law enforcement to be on the lookout for right-wing terrorism doesn’t it? Because that’s exactly what this is; terrorism, by any definition of the word. 

I don’t have a whole more to add because social issue stuff isn’t really my thing, other than that I hope this leads to something of a crackdown on both abortion clinic protestors and inflammatory rhetoric in the media. I respect people’s right to protest, but the abortion clinic protests are too often about harrassing both the doctors who perform the perfectly legal procedures and the women/couples who seek them. And while I don’t support “speech codes” or whatever, there needs to be more culpability for media figures who use inflammatory rhetoric to drive ratings, with no concern for the violence they’re inciting. I agree with Ezra, Congress should use this as a catalyst to act quickly on both fronts.

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Equal Rights on the March

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

Stepping back and looking at the big picture for a second, it’s really astonishing to consider that, in the span of under a week, gay marriage has been legalized in Vermont and Iowa. The Iowa Supreme Court declared the states prohibition on gay marriage to be un-Constitutional last week, and the legislature has since indicated that they have no intention to pursue any action to nullify the decision, making them the only non-Northeastern state to currently have gay marriage on the books. Then, today, the Vermont legislature overrode the governor’s veto in overwhelming fasion, becoming the first state legislature to enshrine gay marriage in their state (the California legislature passed a bill to that effect twice, both of which were vetoed). This is somewhat monumental because it negates what, to this point, has been a typical “serious” right-wing criticism, which is that gay marriage has, thus far, required “judicial activists” to be put into place, something the right has regarded as anti-democratic. Of course, now that Vermont’s legislature has acted, the goalposts have been moved, and now, presumably, popular referendums will be required for anything to be “democratic” (never mind that Vermont has no referendum process).

To state the obvious, you expect this sort of thing from a right-wing (or, on a reversal, froma certain left-wing segment) whose less concerned about process, legitimacy, and law than getting what they want by any means necesary, but somewhat more bothersome has been this argument’s prevalence on the center-right, and in fewer case the center-left. Andrew Sullivan is a very good example. I certainly don’t want to impute sinister motives, because obviously this is an issue more near and dear to Sully than to myself, I simply don’t understand the logic. If you feel that the question is one of Constitutionality, and that the prohibition on gay marriage is un-Constitutional, then the only logical conclusion to draw is that the courts have an obligation to overturn bans on such. The only other logical conclusion is that bans on gay marriage are perfectly Constitutional. I suppose it’s also possible that Sully simply fears that court action will provoke a backlash against the movement and be a net-negative, but as Anonymous Liberal outlines, that just isn’t how istory has shown this sort of thing to work:

Today no one questions the correctness of the Perez decision from a legal standpoint. And that’s important to remember. It proves that just because a panel of judges is the first to recognize something, just because a judicial decision upsets prevailing societal norms, doesn’t mean it’s an example of improper activism or “legislating from the bench.” The first judge to say something is just as right as the last one to say it. Sometimes the right answer, from a constitutional perspective, is pretty clear; it’s just that no one has the courage to stand up and say it.

Years from now, the basic legal argument underlying the gay marriage decisions in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Iowa will be utterly uncontroversial and will seem obviously correct to just about everyone. No one will think that these courts were “legislating from the bench” by stating such obvious truths.

I think this is important to keep in mind, especially when considering that the near term response to decisions like Brown vs. Board of Education was hardly one of universal acceptance. Riots erupted when black students tried to go to white schools, Southern governors and mayors showed up to physically block the doors of state schools, the National Guard had to be deployed to protect black students in Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi, etc. But 10 years later, the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress. The year after that, the Voting Rights Act. And now we have a black President who carried Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina on the way to the White House, and the fundamental holding in Brown is understood to be so self-evident as to be downright shameful that it even had to come to that in the first place. Ultimately, I think, gay marriage will be much the same. More and more states will legalize, whether by legislative or judicial action, but some states will resist no matter what. The Supreme Court is ultimately going to have to step in, and they will, I think, ultimately strike down gay marriage bans across the country (and sooner than most people realize). This won’t make the holding any less correct, and any right-wing rendering of garments over it will not change the ultimate judgment of history, that the core finding in the decision will be so obvious, so uncontroversial, that future generations will view it much as we view Brown; a monumental moment and accomplishment but, at the same time, a national embarrassment that it ever had to come to that.

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The Continued Insufferability of Amanda Marcotte

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

by Brien Jackson

I don’t really know how to lead into this pointly subltely, so I’ll just put it down and go from there; Amanda Marcotte needs to take a break. A really long break. Yes she’s a good read every now and then, and can bring an interesting perspective to my daily reading, but more often than not, and with more impact, she’s just infuriatingly myopic. This is especially true anytime the topic is misogyny, which with Marcotte is more or less all the time.

Now let’s be honest, sexism is of course a problem in our society, as is racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and a dozen other forms of bigotry. I’m not going to dispute that, and I don’t think that many people would. But given that it really is a legitimate problem, it just makes it all that more unusual that Marcotte is so routinely stretching to find things to chalk up to misogyny. Her post today about Roman Polanski is a fairly good example of that.

First, some background. Roman Polanski is an award winning director who hasn’t been in the United States since the mid 1970’s because he’s wanted for drugging and raping a 13 year old girl, something he’s admitted he did. So there’s really no ambiguity about his doubt, yet some people nevertheless wring their hands over the situation and try to defend Polanski. Naturally, this is proof to Marcotte that everyone is a misogynist and we all love rape:

When there’s so little doubt about guilt regarding other crimes, there’s rarely this sort of public hand-wringing about whether the guilty is really guilty, but we’re talking rape and we’re talking about our rape culture.  A rape culture is a funhouse mirror version of the anti-choice culture’s attitudes about abortion.  Anti-choicers want abortion to be illegal with the three exceptions being health, rape, and me.  Rape apologists, who still sadly dominate the discourse, think rape should basically be legal except for dark alleys, virgin daughters, and me.  Even though every single rape apologist claims to oppose rape, they find ways to claim that rape isn’t rape, even when the victim is 13, drugged, and pleading with you to stop as you rape her up the ass. 

Can Marcotte find anyone who, in a vacuum, would actually say that raping a 13 year old girl isn’t a horrible thing to do? Indeed, didn’t we just have a court case concerning the desire of some states to execute child rapists? Some way to “celebrate” raping kids.

On the other hand, let me offer a fairly non-controversial observation; Roman Polanski is a celebrity, and crimes involving celebrities always provoke strange and disproportionate reactions in people. The reasoning is likewise pretty simple; when someone you’ve admired (and we could go into the folly of admiring someone you don’t know, but that’s best left for later) does something terrible, our brains have trouble reconciling that, some more than others. Some people can simply change their opinions of the celebrity in question, but others can’t. The same thing happens when your kid commits a violent crime. Does anyone think the parents of accused murderers standing by their kids don’t think murdering people is extremely uncool? Of course they don’t, because that would be absurd. Rather, we understand that the parent’s relationship with and attachment to their child makes it hard for them to believe in their kid’s guilt, or creates a completely emotional reaction that over rides the “rational” response they would have if the same case involved someone other than their kid. Conversely, parents whose children are the victims of violent crime also tend to react in ways they liely wouldn’t to the same case if it involved someone else. Celebrity cases are really no different; when it’s someone you liked and/or admired, you have a hard time believing they could have done it, or otherwise need to rationalize it away to satisfy your emotional reactions. If you really don’t like the celebrity in question, you tend to be more inclined to believe they did it, support overly harsh sentences for them, etc. Marcotte herself provides more evidence to this later by citing the Chris Brown/Rihanna situation, which again involves celebrities.

Again, no one should trivialize real sexism, and certainly not rape, which is why Marcotte really needs to stop with this nonsense. Rather than doing anyone a favor, or helping to make her point, nonsense like this that drives past 5 or 6 much more obvious factors/answers to pin whatever she’s talking about on sexism both marginalize Marcotte as a writer on the issue, and hurt the cause of fighting against real sexism and other forms of bigotry. No one like being called a bigot, and no one likes people who toss the word around like Magic Johnson throwing dimes. Trying to apply it in a case where it so obviously is not a factor is just going to make everyone defensive, and create a resentment factor towards both the author and their cause.



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