Of course we can talk about gun control today

December 14, 2012

I understand the pressures on the Obama White House, and why it would want to avoid looking like it’s politicizing a tragedy. So I get why it said, after today’s mass-shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, today’s not the day to talk about gun control. I do.

But it’s wrong. Of course we can talk about gun control today. And of course we should.

The front page of Huffington Post on Dec. 14, the day a gunman opened fire in a Connecticut elementary school, killing dozens.

You hear this sort of refrain from gun-rights advocates (and, by the way, I am one) every time there’s a mass shooting. Now, while we’re all feeling emotional, isn’t the time to discuss such an important, nuanced issue, they say. Talking about gun control at a time like this is cheap and transparent, they say. Nonsense.

The fact is this: Our liberty comes at a cost. It always comes at a cost. Our insistence that guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt means people who are almost certainly murders and child molesters go free. Protections against unreasonable search and seizure keep drug dealers on the streets. Free assembly and free expression get you two thirds of the way to violent riots.

And sometimes, the cost is unbearably high, as it is today. The latest reports say nearly 30 people are dead at a the school, more of them children than not. We are once again, as a nation, cut deep and scarred by the act of what can only be described as a broken human being. The pain of those close to the shooting is nearly unimaginable.

Still, today, we come closer to imagining it than we will tomorrow, or the next day. The pain is ripe, fierce and potent. As it should be.

I find guns disgusting. Abhorrent. Vile. But I don’t believe the government has a place regulating them. I see a distinction between the benign act of ownership and the potentially hostile act of usage — and I don’t think the government should be involved in benign acts, no matter what they might presage.

But if we’re going to have a discussion about our freedoms, if we’re going to decide which ones we value and why, it’s got to be a discussion that’s inclusive of the pain when it’s at its sharpest. We’ve got to be wholly mindful of the bargains we make when we choose liberty over security. We’ve got to craft the world in which we choose to live with open eyes, aware of the risks of our action and inaction.

It’s easy to make an argument for freedom when the price is intangible, distant, hypothetical. If our arguments are complete, if they’re coherent, if they’re moral, they’ll stand even in the face of their worst possible consequences.

And it’s hard to imagine consequences worse than this.

Let’s Not Be Stupid: Sure, Guns Kill People

July 25, 2012

I’ve never understood, and I’m frequently frustrated by, the broad allergy to nuance in political debate. I’ve never understood the all-or-nothing of it all, the fear of acknowledging the other side’s reasonable concerns and points, the unquestioning marriage of principle and practicality.

You can believe that income inequality is a serious cultural issue and still think social programs meant to address it are wrong, because it’s immoral to coerce people into helping one another, as happens when tax dollars are used to pay for those efforts. You can believe racism and sexism are abhorrent, and that this country owes an unpayable debt to the minorities whose potential and progress have been stifled by ages of institutional discrimination and worse, but still think anti-discrimination laws unfairly interfere with private enterprise and agreements among individuals.

You can think guns are disgusting while still supporting the right to bear arms. And you can think anti-gun laws are unacceptable infringements upon that right, while still acknowledging they might have saved a whole lot of people in Aurora.

I’ve heard a lot of variations of Mitt Romney’s line on the situation — ”I still believe that the Second Amendment is the right course to preserve and defend and don’t believe that new laws are going to make a difference in this type of tragedy.” The argument is that people determined to do harm will, and no laws are going to stand in their way. In other words, guns don’t kill people, batshit crazy redheaded psychopaths who think they’re the Joker do.

But, come on — an AR-15 sure makes it a lot easier.

Look, let’s not be stupid about this. If the guns alleged shooter James Eagan Holmes used weren’t legally available, his story couldn’t have played out the way it did. Maybe he would have had to buy them on the black market; and maybe his chances of getting caught would have been increased significantly. Maybe he would have built a bomb (his booby-trapped apartment certainly demonstrates a lot of destructive and twisted know-how); or maybe the increased risk of personal injury would have put him off. Maybe he would have gotten his hands on hazardous chemicals, or blocked the exits and set the place on fire; or maybe he would have aroused suspicion in the preparation.

Maybe he would have still caused just as much destruction. But at least it would have been harder.

And we can acknowledge that while still arguing against gun control. We can say that a benign act (the ownership of a weapon) is different than a hostile one (the use of a weapon against innocents), and that it’s wrong to punish or restrict people who haven’t done anything malicious or destructive because one act might lead to the other. We can even acknowledge massacres like Aurora are almost inevitable in a world where we allow access to weapons, while still arguing freedom carries certain tragic risks.

We might lose the emotional appeal, but we can keep the rational one. And in the end, that’s all that should really decide policy.

Stuff I Think — Quickies

June 1, 2012

Lots of rant-worthy things going on in the news today.

Sometimes, I open my big mouth.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg Wants to Ban Big Servings of Soft Drinks: It really doesn’t get more nanny-state than this. The mayor wants to bar sodas and other sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces (not including diet sodas) from restaurants, movie theaters and anywhere else that serves prepared food, to fight obesity. And he’s likely to get his way. This the trans fat ban all over again — though at least then, you could make the (weak) argument that people didn’t really understand what they were being served, so a ban was needed to protect them. I’m no dietician, but I know full well a Big Gulp is a Big Mistake. I feel sick by the time I’m done drinking one. And you know what? Sometimes I’m going to want one anyway. It’s my God-given right to slurp down sugar until it makes me woozy. And it’s yours, too.

A Bill to Ban Sex-Selection-Motivated Abortions Fails in the House: This is a good thing. The debate around abortion is complex and layered, but abortion is legal. The law recognizes a woman has the right to choose whether to bring a pregnancy to term; there’s no way we can justify having it second-guess her intentions. Under this bill, it would still have been legal for a woman to have an abortion on a whim, but not because she’s concerned about having a child of a given gender. Sex selection — rare in this country, but seemingly happening in certain Asian communities and others where there’s a strong preference for male children — may be distasteful to most of us, but it’s not hard to imagine situations where it’s less so. What if you worry a girl child won’t be embraced by your community, or even the rest of your family? What if a girl would be shunned and unloved by her father, her teachers, her community leaders? What if she might be more likely to fall victim to abuse? What if those problems are are too large for you and your family to face? We’re much better off battling the cultural problems that make this an issue than we are interfering with a woman’s well-established legal rights. If you want to argue abortion is unjustifiable overall, that’s a debate worth having (and of course, one that rages on) — but back-door bans like this would only make the law incoherent and inconsistent. They’d also blow doctor-patient confidentiality to hell.

A Boston Court Has Found the Defense of Marriage Act Unconstitutional: I’ll be honest; I don’t know enough about states’ rights issues to have much of an opinion on the constitutional arguments here. And I do think it’s paramount that courts stick to issues of law and constitutionality, not set policy. But DOMA is a bad, bad law, and I’m glad to see the fight against it making progress. My gut says this is a very good thing.

Obama, the Walrus

May 18, 2012

Maybe it’s understandable Barack Obama hasn’t panned out to be the leader many of us were so eager to follow. After all, we haven’t any feet.

I’m stretching a metaphor, but stick with me.

I’ve been thinking of the presidential candidates lately in terms of the Walrus and the Carpenter, from Lewis Carroll’s poem of the same name. In the poem, W&C lead a group of naive and excitable young oysters on a stroll, only to eat them in the end. The oysters are done in by their as much by their own innocence as by their guides’ deceit. Only a single older, wiser, more weary oyster survives, by declining the walk. Tellingly, he lets the young ones go on without a word of warning.

While they’re plenty of room to explore the elder oyster’s culpability, the central question suggested by the poem is this: Who’s more despicable, the walrus or the carpenter? The walrus mourns for the oysters. He knows what he’s doing is wrong. He continues eating all the same. The carpenter’s ignorant to any moral concern at all. The walrus’ appetites, his goals, his desires, easily overpower his conscience; the carpenter’s conscience, if he has one, never kicks in.

If you know my sensibilities and sympathies, you know where I’m going with this. Cast our friend Barry in the Wilford Brimley role.

I like Obama, sometimes despite myself. I can’t get away from the impression this is a guy with his head on straight, with a compassionate heart, with a real respect for human dignity and civility. My own principles (libertairan-ish, classical liberal-ish constitutionalist) don’t make many of his positions very compatible with my own, but then again, the GOP rarely does better on issues of fundamental freedom in my eyes. So a lot comes down to management style for me. A lot comes down to values.

I never expected to line up with Obama on issues of financial freedom. I at least thought Obama and I were on the same page about some other important things. But he keeps letting me down. Indefinite detention? Still happens. Warrantless wiretapping? Check. Extraordinary rendition? Afraid so. Violation of other nations’ sovereignty? Sigh.

I learned last week Mr. President and I do see eye to eye about gay rights, specifically gay marriage. And hallelujah for that. But his eventual statement of support, welcome as it was, important as it was, brought with it an implicit admission: He’d been lying about his true position for some time, perhaps for his entire political life. He confirmed a fear I’ve struggled to resist since his presidency began: He’s long been willing to set aside conviction for political expediency.

I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s not the first time we’ve seen Obama put politics ahead of his principles or plans, or at least rationalize that the latter can be delayed until the former is satisfied. But I’m deeply disappointed.

For one, it’s just so … pedestrian. I nearly cried over the Yes We Can video. I wanted better than run-of-the-mill politicking from this president. This isn’t my Obama. But maybe that’s my own fault, a bit. Like a lot of other people, I got caught up in the music of history, and heard the tune I wanted. It happens.

But for those of us who believe our gay brothers and sisters are contributors to, and not exceptions from, the human condition, the issue of gay marriage should transcend political considerations. We’re deeply ashamed it’s a matter of debate. We’re disgusted. While we may (sometimes) respect those who disagree with us, we can’t respect their position any more than we could respect arguments for segregation or interment. We’re stunned modern thinkers can see it any differently

And on such matters of deep conscience, sorry, Barack, you don’t get to calculate. You don’t get to strategize. You don’t get to defer the issue until you’re secure in your position. You speak from a place of truth, always. You stand on the side of right, always. If the country isn’t with you, you do your damnedest to get it there. You don’t spread the butter over the oysters, moaning about how you deeply sympathize.

You don’t.

For those who don’t see the struggle for gay rights (including gay marriage) in those terms, for you carpenters. … well, you’re wrong. You’re very, very wrong for reasons too numerous to explore in this essay. Chat me up at a party sometime, though. Ideally before the third or fourth drink.

If I vote in the upcoming presidential election — and it’s very possible I won’t — it’ll be for Obama. Despite all my reservations, I still can’t shake the sense he’s a decent man, and infinitely better than the alternative. And maybe that says something about me, about how I’d answer the question Carroll put forth with his poem.

And if it does, maybe I’m not proud of my answer.


March 27, 2012

Someone told me recently I write really long blog posts.

That’s true.





(with a little work, I think I could have made that into a Haiku).

Call me a RIPA (Why I’m not a Republican)

March 14, 2012

Here’s the thing about big-party politics: They’re not for me. Neither major party is really ideologically consistent enough to be very appealing to me, and the minor parties are sort of a mess. So I’ve been a libertarian-ish independent for as long as I can remember.

But that means, when my viable choices have Ds or Rs next to their name, I should, in theory, lean toward the latter, at least in a lot of cases. And yet, I can’t seem to do it. No matter how many of my views line up neatly with Republican core principles, I just can’t hang my hat with these guys. I can’t bear to stand alongside them. Not without an opportunity to take a shower immediately after (yes, insulting hyperbole; I already feel sort of bad about it). Call me a RIPA — a Republican in Philosophy Only. I voted for Obama, despite some serious concerns, and I’ll do it again, despite some serious objections regarding his biggest achievements.

Now, of course, I don’t feel that way about all Republicans. Not nearly all. Not most. But there’s an ugliness and vitriol growing within the party (in particular among those who claim to speak for it in Congress and media), and it’s toxic to a platform and organization that can and should offer something invaluable to the public discourse. Yes, I can easily find examples of bad behavior from liberals. Easily. But examples without greater context don’t do much to sway an argument, and I’ve got no doubt that we’re talking about a seriously lopsided dynamic. If you don’t agree, there’s not much short of a serious statistical analysis either of us could do to convince the other. So, moving on.

I’m not the only one to notice; most so-concerned commentators are calling for a resurgence of moderate conservatives in response. The Whitmans. The Chafees. The Snows. I’m not really interested in moderation; if you’ve got thorough, supportable, consistent convictions, be bold about them. But I’d be happy to see a resurgence of reasonable Republicans.

Here’s what the Republican party could do to get me on board:

Toss Out the Know-Nothings: The embrace of anti-intellectualism is, to use a 10-dollar word, execrable. George Bush won hearts and minds arguing, in essence, it’s better to listen to your heart than your mind. Sarah Palin’s message was never that you shouldn’t let the elites think they’re smarter than you; it was that you shouldn’t let smart people tell you what to do. Herman Cain took a frightening pride in being unsophisticated, and a frightening amount of people embraced him for it. At least Michele Bachmann, Palin’s spiritual successor, has the dignity to try to make arguments on their merits. She’s just really, really bad at it. At least Gingrich tries to paint himself as an ideas man. He’s just a really, really big doofus. And a hypocrite. And a philanderer. And philosophically nowhere. And kind of a jackass.

Stop Obsessing With Sex: Or more importantly, stop trying to legislate subjective values and personal preferences. It’s a near-cliche criticism, but you can’t argue government should get out of our lives while also trying to inject it into the bedroom (bad joke: Is that a stimulus package, or are you just happy to see me?). A government ruled by a sane social contract protects individual rights; it doesn’t try to force a way of thinking or being on people. It doesn’t try to preserve a sense of culture at the expense of freedom. Come on, guys, you get this concept when it comes to property rights. Get it when it comes to personal behavior, too.

No, Really, Understand What Individual Freedom Means: Get that religious freedom doesn’t mean allowing a local school board to institute prayer time — it means adhering to a promise that government is going to be indifferent to matters of religion and personal conscience, so everyone can do as he or she pleases. Get that allowing gay marriage does no more to undermine heterosexual marriage than Hindu weddings undermine  Catholic ones, no matter whose church recognizes what. Get that censorship is wrong. Just wrong. Bad ideas can be combated good ones. Always. (And once in while, bad ideas are much better than anyone thinks.) Live and let live. Right on.

Recognize Hatred, Fear-Mongering and Bigotry for What They Are, and Say We’ll Have No Part in Them: Sorry, Rush, Glenn, Anne, you’ve got to go. O’Reilly, you’re on thin ice, but you’re sometimes funny, so you can stick around. For now.  But it’s not enough to blow away the blowhards. The GOP has to recognize that, for instance, among many of its poor, southern, white followers, there’s a strong resentment against minorities, born from a perception that political correctness has elevated just about everyone but whites in the media and popular sentiment. It needs to understand that fear of “the other” is all too real. And it needs to understand that while that resentment and fear are built atop a complex history and intricate social fabric, and it’s even possible to have some sympathy for it, it translates to a very present and troubling form of racism. The GOP needs to see what role that plays in the birther movement and other allied efforts to de-legitimize Obama. When that little old lady told John McCain she didn’t trust Obama because “he’s an Arab,” the answer shouldn’t have been, “No ma’am, no ma’am … He’s a decent family man, citizen … He’s not, thank you.” It should have been, “Well, he’s not, but so what if he was?”

Admit the Free Market Isn’t the Only Viable Model (Argue It’s the Only Fair One): A universal 8 p.m. curfew might cause a dip in after-dark crime, but it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. And a regulated market can succeed, but that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to use the coercive power of government to move resources around. There are complex arguments to be had here. Really complex arguments to be had. But 1) People who think differently about this concept aren’t automatically (or even generally) evil, and 2) There’s nothing wrong with admitting your model may not create the desired results in all situations; you can still argue it’s the only morally appropriate one. You insult people’s intelligence pretending the free market’s a undisputed win on all fronts (as do liberals who pretend all the answers are in redistribution and regulation). People are capable of nuanced debate, if you given them a shot. At least some people are. Pandering to the ones who aren’t may get you votes, but it’s bad for the country. Give people some credit.

Money, Money, Money, Muh-ney

January 25, 2012

I’m having a busy day, so this will be a quickie.

There are a lot of people up in arms about the revelation that Mitt Romney’s effective federal income tax rate in 2010 was just shy of 14 percent. The perception seems to be that it’s a little too little, though there’s room to look at that stat from a few different angles. The New York Times’ Caucus blog says Romney’s rate is around in line with what a household making $80,000 would pay — a  bit higher than most households, but not much. The Tax Foundation says the average American actually pays something more like 11 percent.

But let’s buy into the perception for a moment. Is it really clear Romney should pay a much higher rate than the typical non-bazillionaire?

At a just a bit shy of 14 percent, Romney paid in $3 million toward government services. He also gave about $3 million to charity (though a big part of that was to an, ugh, religious institution, which strikes me as a lot of good money after bad) — which is part of what kept the tax rate low.

When was the last time you contributed $3 million to help the government do its thing?

Now sure, you probably simply can’t — nor can I. And Romney still gets to live a life of luxury, if he so chooses — being left with fewer millions of dollars of income in a given year doesn’t sound all that bad. Fair enough.

But $3 million. That’s 60 $50,000 workers. That’s 3,000 $1,000 computers for a public school. That’s 120 one-year scholarships to a $20,000 college. All by himself.

Do your tax dollars, all by themselves, make that sort of service possible? Mine don’t.

I’m not an expert on the tax code. I don’t know if every clause and allowance Romney used is one I’d call fair. And I don’t have the wherewithal today to make a more complete argument for or against progressive taxation (and I don’t think the point I’m making here necessarily undercuts the idea of progressive taxation — if it’s a bad idea, there are better reasons why, much like there are far better reasons for voting against Mitt Romney than this.).

But I just can’t get behind beating up on the rich for paying more or less, proportionately, what I and my friends do (meaning, in real dollars, way the hell more than we do), even if they could afford far more and still have lots left over. That’s kinda what being rich is. And I imagine it’s nice work, if you can get it.

Take it away, Sam:

Henry, last fall, every time your boss got on the stump and said, “It’s time for the rich to pay their fair share,” I hid under a couch and changed my name. I left Gage Whitney making $400,000 a year, which means I paid 27 times the national average in income tax. I paid my fair share, and the fair share of 26 other people. And I’m happy to, ‘cause that’s the only way it’s gonna work. And it’s in my best interest that everybody be able to go to schools and drive on roads. But I don’t get 27 votes on Election Day. The fire department doesn’t come to my house 27 times faster and the water doesn’t come out of my faucet 27 times hotter. The top one percent of wage earners in this country pay for 22 percent of this country. Let’s not call them names while they’re doing it, is all I’m saying.

Why the Elizabeth Warren Quote Misses the Mark

January 14, 2012

I like Elizabeth Warren. I really do. I mean, she’s wrong about lots of important things, but I like her.

She has the courage of her convictions. She presents complex, thorough arguments in plain and passionate terms. She believes wholeheartedly in what she says (the Brown campaign’s childish insistence that she’s a hypocrite for being rich while arguing the deck is stacked against the middle class is so ill-supported it borders on pathetic). And she’s attempting to address a very legitimate issue, that of systematic income inequality, though just about all of her conclusions about how to address it rely on a vision of government’s role with which I couldn’t disagree more.

But I’d rather people like her were representing the arguments for income redistribution and social justice than gimmick-happy hyperventilators like Michael Moore. She wasn’t wrong (well, maybe a little hyperbolic, but not wrong) when she said she created the intellectual foundation for what much of the Occupy movement’s about. People like Warren raise the level of debate.

There’s a quote of hers that’s been getting a lot of attention lately. It’s meaningless, and I know from reading and listening to Warren that she can do better. But I’m most troubled by how much it seems to resonate with so many people:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there, good for you. But, I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory and hire someone to protect against this because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Here’s the thing: She’s arguing against a point virtually no one’s making. For the most part, the services she’s saying “you” (the factory owner) relied upon aren’t the ones anyone’s arguing we should do away with.

“You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for.” I’ve personally always been ambivalent on whether it’s appropriate for government to pay for roads — I can make reasonable arguments in either direction (I usually come down in favor of them, as the government needs to create certain infrastructure for its own justifiable purposes, and so long as we’re paying for the roads the government has no right to keep us from them outside of times of emergency). But my ambivalence is derived from a conviction in a libertarian ideology even the most adamantly conservative Republicans would consider extreme. For practical purposes, no one’s saying we should stop paying taxes to support the roads.

• “You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate.” She gets much closer to a salient point here. Some of us really do argue there shouldn’t be any public education (funding it strikes me as an unjustifiable use of government’s coercive power to tax, and providing it strikes me as outright dangerous insofar as it gives the government an extraordinary opportunity for indoctrination). The mainstream conservative position is far more moderate. True, there are many conservatives who’d like to see fewer resources put into education. The vast majority of them, however, still believe in creating an effective and thorough educational system; they just disagree with liberals about how to go about that. Within that debate, there’s lots of room to argue more needs to be done to support education in lower-income areas, and providing that support is going to mean leaning on the well-off — and that’s probably what Warren’s getting at. So let’s give her half a point for this one.

• “You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.” Even the most wackadoodle libertarians, like myself, still support the idea that government should provide a police force and a military. It’s a fundamental part of any social contract—you turn over the right to coerce, to apply force, to a sovereign entity in exchange for the promise it’ll use that power justly to protect your fundamental rights and freedoms. That’s what separates libertarians from anarchists. So we can dismiss this part of the statement.

In short: the easy answer to Warren’s quote is, “You’re right, but that’s not relevant.”

Or in slightly longer form, “No, that’s OK. Keep taxing me for the roads and schools and police. I’m cool with that. I benefited from them, I’ll probably continue to benefit from them, and other people should benefit from them too. But let’s leave all this stuff about income redistribution, about social support services, about taxing the rich at higher rates up for further debate, because you didn’t just make an argument for any of that.”

This guy more or less makes my point, but he’s funnier about it than me:

Ugliness, Justified

January 2, 2012

Here’s a quickie post, semi-aggregated from aggregation (and other ‘Net-trend) enthusiast Matt DeRienzo, my friend and former boss.

Matt asked the following question on Facebook: On CNN just now, Ron Paul said that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 violates private property rights. I’m pretty sure he’s arguing that private businesses, i.e., McDonald’s, Walmart, etc., be allowed to not serve customers based on race. Are my friends and family who support him aware of this kind of nonsense?

I’m not intending to vote for Ron Paul, but he and I agree on certain important things. This is one of them—but it’s one that requires a bit of explanation. Here was my response to Matt (privacy settings allowing, click through to his profile to see a much fuller discussion, with some thoughtful views from other friends of his):

Most (but not all) libertarians are really not particularly concerned with creating a government that would work toward the betterment of society in the sense most people understand. They’re (we’re) more concerned with limiting the coercive application of government’s power, which we see as unjust when applied for anything outside the barest interpretation of a social contract. If it takes guys with guns who have the authority to put you in a little box to enforce, we get squeamish about it. And ultimately, pretty much every law, regulation or tax does, without a lot of layers of abstraction—enforcement always depends on a threat of violence or imprisonment (though sometimes several steps of defiance off), both of which must morally be reserved for only the most extraordinary situations.

The Constitution doesn’t (and shouldn’t) require anyone to do business with anyone else for any reason. So if one business owner wants to decline service to a person, no matter how absurd the reason, it’s hard to see why he should have to. If he wants to say I can’t come into his restaurant or purchase his goods because he doesn’t like my tacky Christmas sweater, or the look on my face, or my ex-girlfriend’s mother’s uncle’s reputation, or my middle initial, or my political views, or my taste in music … well, that’s his right, no matter how absurd he’s being. And if he wants to decline me service because of my skin color, religion (like I said … political views), or country of family origin … same deal.

That being said, I’d have no hesitation boycotting any business I knew to be doing this. I’d have no problem shutting someone out of my life for doing so in his own business. As a journalist, I’d consider shining light on situations like this important, so communities can make informed decisions about which businesses deserve their money. A business that practices this sort of discrimination certainly doesn’t deserve my patronage, and it certainly does deserve my scorn.

If people can’t be bothered to fight that sort of ugliness with their wallets (and it’s very possible they can’t always, which is truly sad), we’ve got some pretty big problems. But it’s not clear that forcing people into business transactions they don’t want to participate is an appropriate use of government’s sovereign and coercive power.

It’s worth noting that Paul’s said this for some time—and also maintained he would have voted to abolish Jim Crow laws, which he sees as an equally unjustifiable intrusion upon liberty. I don’t know what to believe about the brouhaha over the racist newsletters published in his name, though my gut says the real scandal there is the gross irresponsibility and poor oversight.

Unfortunately, the view he expresses in the video seen here (which is actually an older MSNBC clip on the same topic) — that public backlash always would be enough to put a racist merchant out of business— is just plainly naive. There, he makes the mistake of trying to confuse the practical effect of a law with its fundamental reasonableness and justifiability, and it doesn’t hold up.

But on the core point, I’d say he’s spot on.


Moral, but not Godly

December 23, 2011

Of all the arguments in favor of the existence of God (or gods), the weakest are the ones that start by suggesting there should be a deity. Most importantly, they do nothing to advance the idea that there is, indeed, an almighty creator or ruler—and instead better argue that blind faith is a useful device for crowd control or individual manipulation. They place faith as a virtue over reason in cases where the two prove incompatible, which does nothing to persuade the cynic. They value the good consequences of even a tenuous or ill-justified belief over the honest process of critical evaluation—and presume wrongly, dangerously wrongly, that the latter won’t lead to the same or better outcomes.

I’ve been absorbing Christopher Hitchens‘ writing since his death last week. His work is to live on in a way his neverlasting soul most certainly won’t. He was fond of arguing not only that there’s no god, but it’s a good thing for anyone who values free will and self-determination. Why should we—clumsy assemblages of flesh and blood and tissue and hair and cartilage, blessed by fortune (though not provenance) with a useful if flawed clump of grey matter toward the top—be so hungry for tyranny? Why should we wish to hand over our will to an unknown and unknowable superior? Even if God is omniscient and omnipotent, even his judgment is beyond reproach (and the judgment of the god of any major holy book most certainly is not), why should we be so eager for subjugation?

I can see where for some, that might be appealing. Witness the outpouring of grief in North Korea for Kim Jong Il, one of the most thorough and irredeemable tyrants of modern times. There are any number of reasons why a person might prefer deference over independence—a lack of confidence in one’s own ability to think with nuance; a deep-seated comfort with submission left over from childhood, when Mom and Dad knew everything and we knew nothing; a variation on Stockholm syndrome. And all those dynamics and others might be all the more appealing when the supposed superior is said to be infallible and (in some depictions) full of love.

I have a certain sympathy for those who’d very much like there to be a god (many wishful nonbelievers and agnostics fall into this category). But Hitch wasn’t one of them, and neither am I. Give me liberty or give me death, even without a prospect of an afterlife (not that it necessarily follows that if there’s a god, there’s an afterlife, or one worth wanting—nor that if there’s an afterlife, there’s a god).

The source of morality?

Among the most common arguments for why there should be a god is the suggestion that from God comes morality. Some go further—and say that even if God may not exist, the trappings of religion and its insistence on a moral structure are necessary to hold civilization together. Both camps argue that either God or a thorough belief keep us from thieving, from killing, from raping, from wanton, hedonistic and self-interested barbarism. If we weren’t afraid of burning for all eternity in the pit, the argument goes, the world would surely go to hell.

For the nonbeliever who succeeds at keeping his own barbarism to a socially acceptable minimum, this is silly on the surface (and indeed, it’s not hard to find justification and enticement in holy books to do things considered wholly reprehensible by modern moral conventions—but more on that in a bit). But, still, let’s explore the line of thought with a little more care.

Presume, for a moment, that there is a god, and that his good and true moral instruction has been keeping the world more or less in line up until now. Put aside, for practical purposes, the inescapable observation that any number of religions with disparate rules already dominate any number of societies, and in all as well as even the most secular cultures, certain sins (if we’re to use that word) are both severely punishable by the state and recognizable as evil even to those ignorant of the law (murder’s bad pretty much wherever you go—unless, of course, the god in your corner has demanded it).

Now lets say God, as he was fond of doing for a time, makes a pronouncement—and lets say he does so in clear and unambiguous terms. “Hey all, thanks for all the devotion and whatnot—it’s been a blast,” the divine creator bellows from the heavens. “I’m sort of done keeping an eye on humanity, though. You guys have been great, but I’ve been at this for a long time, so I’m moving on. No more instructions, no more promises of reward or punishment, no more going to Heaven or Hell. Just the mortal coil from now on. Talk amongst yourselves, and all that.” And then God goes off to catch up on back episodes of Battlestar Galactica and The Wire, as he takes a well-deserved break. Good for him. God bless.

So what would happen? Surely, surely, not an orgy of murder and gross violation. Surely, not rampant theft and rape and assault. How many of us are fighting back urges for that sort of evil, held back only by the threat of retribution (and for that subset of humanity that is—how effective does the threat usually prove)? And what distortion of self-interest would lead us to break down the legal barriers and perfectly mortal punishment aimed at keeping the actual psychopaths, sociopaths and other fundamentally broken human beings at bay?

But we’d certainly see some changes. The devout Jew would taste his first strip of bacon, the Hindu would slaughter his first cow, and the Mormon would finally get a morning pick-me-up. The Sabbath day would be sacrificed, and lowly animals would not. God’s name would be taken in vain without hesitation. Mixed fabrics would no longer be unholy (though white after Labor Day presumably would). The repressed homosexual would feel free to seek out love (or lust) on his own terms.

To the nonbeliever, these sorts of changes would be somewhere between harmless and welcome. But even to the believer, it’s hard to see where any offense could remain. They’re rules for which our own sense of reason can find little or no basis, accepted (to the extent they’re accepted) only because they come from a divine authority. Any bright 4-year-old has been frustrated by the rational inadequacy of a parent’s pronouncement, “Because I said so.” At some point, absent the threat of retribution or even the sense that the aggrieved party remains aggrieved, it’s time to consider whether there’s any harm to be had in pushing back one’s bedtime—and if none can be found, to test it out.

And if God took himself out of the equation, we’d also lose the justification for any number of atrocities and bad behavior that the moral among us would never otherwise consider.

The moral man doesn’t need instruction from a higher authority to act justly—his own sense is enough. But he does need instruction from a presumably just superior to violate that sense. This can often be useful and productive for society. The moral soldier with no inclination toward murder needs to believe (sometimes correctly) that the order to kill serves a greater good, and has been issued by an authority more capable of making that judgment than he. When the judgment comes from god, there’s no question as to its merit.

But a study of any major religion suggests they should be. Hateful and destructive acts are not only committed in the name of religion (even the most devout clergy would acknowledge that happens time and again)—they’re committed at the behest of religion, under the instruction of the texts and traditions considered most holy (that same clergy might be more reluctant to make this concession).

The Koran and Bible both endorse slavery and provide detailed instructions for its appropriate application. Forced female circumcision is common to several faiths. Orthodox Judaism instructs the mohel to draw blood from the circumcised penis with his mouth as part of the covenant with Noah (a practice that, in one notorious New York City case, led to the spread of herpes to several infants). Daughters may be sold and sons may be sacrificed. Those who fornicate outside the covenant of marriage or who work on the Sabbath may be stoned to death. Witches may not be suffered to live. A prohibition on coveting, necessary for a free-market economy, is among the 10 most notorious commandments. Verbal offenses against the reputation of a God who can’t, by virtue of his omnipotence, be harmed are punishable by death. Mothers and fathers must be honored, even if they’re abusive or absent. The Mormon church denied its priesthood to blacks until a new “revelation” amended God’s infallible instruction in 1978. Not only are xenophobia and tribalism common to every major bible, so is the endorsement of the slaughter of outsiders and infidels should they, for instance, occupy lands promised to the truly holy.

These aren’t ancient and long-abandoned interpretations of ambiguous edicts. These practices and warrants are still very much alive today. Witness all the difficulty we still have in the Middle East, particularly in and around Israel/Palestine, for a troubling example of the last. And the text that supports this evil is most often plain and direct. God is not, by modern standards, particularly compassionate, interested in equal treatment for his various creations or respectful of the sanctity of life. By the descriptions presented in major religious texts, he’s petty, megalomaniacal, starved for adulation, grossly inconsistent in his instruction and prone to favor some of those made in his image above others for reasons that are never made clear (conveniently, the people of whichever book is being followed are almost always at the top of the organizational chart).

(Note: The New Testament, on the whole, is kinder than its older counterpart. But its story is not without troubling developments of its own. For instance, it introduces into the Judeo-Christian tradition the concept of a Hell in which the unrighteous will suffer eternal torment—the Old Testament was content to let punishment end at the moment of a horrific death at the hands of one’s peers.)

True believers and their sympathizers have found a fairly neat loophole. Yes, the Bible, Koran and other texts appear to endorse and command any number of practices we’d consider unconscionable, or severely punish offenses we’d consider benign. But these works aren’t always meant to be interpreted literally, they say—religious texts are full of parable and metaphor and hyperbole, and must be read critically to extract lessons about unimpeachable values without preoccupation for the specific details and events described. (Not all true believers turn to this argument—for some, the book says what it says, and if Leviticus tells me my slaves can be bought from neighboring nations, or the Koran says it’s heroic to die in an attack on the infidels, than so be it; this ethic is more dangerous in practice but more logically consistent than the compromised and contorted sort of belief professed by most uncomfortable with the text put in front of them).

But this thinking itself—though a respectable effort to square a circle, and to break away from barbarism while still holding onto the comforts and solace a belief system might provide—exposes the most fundamental flaw in the assertion that morality stems from God. If we’re to recognize that some passages of some holy texts must be figurative, because what they seem to suggest literally can’t possibly be reconciled with our modern moral standards, then we’re still reliant on a moral sense outside of the religion as a basis for that determination.

We’re still turning to our minds, as we should, to tell us that up is up and right is right, and skeptical of assertions to the contrary. We’re still dependent on rationality, not faith.

And thank God for that.

— Louis C. Hochman