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September 2017

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We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this doy forward, it's going to be only America first, America first.

Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.

-Inaugural Address, President Donald Trump

I must confess that I did not watch the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States of America. I did not watch, in part, because I did not expect any surprises from the man who will now lead our country. But, really, I didn't watch for the same reasons I have never watched a Presidential inauguration. I find the pomp and ceremony of these political occasions boring. While I do appreciate the significance of the way we hand over the reigns of power in a peaceful fashion and acknowledge how truly rare that peaceful transition has been in history, I simply do not find ceremony of it compelling.

But normally I have enough interest in the proceedings to follow them through the news and social media. Not this time. I have grave reservations about the qualifications, character, and abilities of the newly inaugurated President. I find his personality, attitude, and manner abrasive, and I was more than a little afraid of what he might say, or what might be done by his supporters, or his opponents.

Thus it was Sunday morning before I actually read the text of his inaugural address. There are many things that can be said about the speech, and many points that I find troubling. But the one that sends shivers down my spine is the language about "America first." I don't know if the President was intentionally invoking the isolationist movement of the late 1930s, but my immediate reaction when reading these words was to link them to the pro-appeasement isolationist who were sympathetic to the fascist regimes of Europe. I thought about the strong images drawn by a young Dr. Seuss early in his career, including this one:

I think that history has, properly, judged this isolationist movement harshly for ignoring the brutality and inhumanity of the axis alliance and the evil that was being committed in the territories they controlled. And I think that if we do, in fact, undertake a true policy that always and only puts American interests first, regardless of what that means to the rest of the world, then history will judge us just as harshly.

And while I wonder if the new President is sufficiently well-versed in history to appreciate the full historical context of his words, I see evidence that they may be rooted in a similar worldview. There is already a bill pending in the House of Representatives to withdraw the US from the United Nations. A year ago, I would have thought that such a bill would have had exactly zero chance of actually passing, a product of the extreme political fringes. But in light of the words of the President, I can't help but wonder if we aren't about to try and follow a path we have already walked.

I am going to take a break for a few days.  I will try my damnedest to not think about the election or politics. When I come back, I’m hoping for some fresh perspective.  We’ll see…

However, before I go, I want to share some thoughts that have occurred to me as I have read the election coverage in the newspaper and people’s responses on Facebook:

  • Please try to avoid saying “This isn’t *my* America” or things like that. If this is what you feel like saying, then it is an indication that you have been living inside an echo chamber and don’t have a broad enough contact with the diversity of this country.  The reality is that this *is* your America, just as it is mine and everyone else’s.  Denying that reality won’t make it any easier to solve the problems we face or change the things we don’t like about it.

  • Do not call those who voted for Mr. Trump ignorant, or stupid, or anything of the sort.  These types of insults are a big part of why they voted for him.  They are tired of being seen as ignorant, unimportant, and even invisible.  I cringed when Mrs. Clinton referred to Mr. Trump’s supporters as “deplorables”, exactly because it made her appear every bit as callous towards their needs as they believed she was. We need to stop dismissing the concerns of the rural poor, the blue collar laborer, the angry core of Mr. Trump’s support.  Only when they actually believe that their concerns have been heard will their anger abate.

  • In spite of what it might feel like right now, this is *not* the end of the world.  We will survive this. It might not be fact, I expect that it will be quite ugly, but we *will* get through it.  There will be future elections, and we will get another chance to correct our path.  In the meantime, we can help to make things a tiny, little bit less ugly by acknowledging the result and trying to figure out ways to help each other get through the next few years.

I couldn’t bring myself to watch the election coverage yesterday. The campaign has been going on for so long, and has been so ugly, that I was just exhausted.  I was in line to vote before the polls opened, and then I carefully avoided election news for the rest of the day.  Just before I went to bed, I saw some unsettling posts on Facebook that suggested that my confidence that the safety net of the Electoral College would protect us from mob-acracy might be misplaced, but it wasn’t conclusive.  So when I got up this morning and turned on the TV and learned that Mr. Trump had won the election, I was stunned.

We, as a nation, have allowed our fear to dictate our choice. I have just perused my Facebook feed, and have seen many people speculate about the reasons for this outcome.  I agree with those who indicate that fear and anger are probably the primary reasons. Too many people in this country are afraid.  They fear the strangers among us, whether they be illegal immigrants, or muslim refugees, or people with different sexual orientations or gender identities.  They fear for their personal future, that they won’t be able to afford to pay their bills, feed their families, provide a home.  The fear change, because it makes them uncomfortable, and challenges their core beliefs.

And they’re angry.  They are angry because they don’t feel heard or understood.  They feel like their fear is being laughed at, being made fun of, is considered to be the product of their ignorance.  They are angry because they don’t hear their concerns and needs being discussed in our politics.  The feel like they are either ignored, or looked down upon.  And they are tired of feeling like they don’t matter.

They are so afraid and angry that they were willing to vote for a man who is clearly and obviously not qualified for the Office to which we have just elected him.  In their hearts, I think they know this.  But he was willing to acknowledge them, and because they don’t feel like anyone else did, that was enough.

Unfortunately, I think that many of those people who voted for Mr. Trump because they believed that he spoke for them are going to be very disappointed.  I don’t think he speaks for (or cares about) anyone but himself.  His presidency is not going to do any more to address the fears, concerns, or needs of those who voted for him than anyone else has.  In the meantime, the tenor of his campaign has given the patina of legitimacy to all manner of ugly speech. Much of the progress we have made towards inclusion and equality is going to erode, and it will take some time to rebuild our structures of tolerance and compassion.

I honestly believe that Mrs. Clinton was her own worst enemy. In her own way it was fear that did her in.  She allowed her fear of embarrassment to dictate a policy of obfuscation that made her look guilty of covering up wrong-doing.  Rather than acknowledging her mistakes and promising to learn from them, she was afraid that her enemies would use them against her, so her instinct was to try to prevent those enemies from finding out.  This was a self-defeating strategy, because when her opponents did find out (as they inevitably would), her mistakes appear even worse because of the efforts to hide them.  This pattern has persisted over her entire career, and it has created a public perception of her as a scheming, manipulative operator who only cares about getting and holding power.  I think she would have been far better served by transparency over the years.  In acknowledging mistakes and learning from them, I think people would have been better able to see past the mistakes to her vision for the country.

The votes have been counted.  To say that I am unhappy with the result is a gross understatement.  But I will not claim that the results are invalid or fraudulent. I will grit my teeth and cross my fingers and hope (against all hope) for the best. But for this country to move forward, one thing needs to change. We need to start listening to each other.  We need to stop calling each other names and dismissing the concerns of the other side as “stupid” or “evil”.  If we could take a moment to actually listen to the needs, concerns, and fears of our opponents, then we just might have a chance to work together in ways that are constructive, rather than divisive.  Compromise is not a dirty word.  It is how we get things done.  No one gets everything they want, but everyone gets at least a little something. But that is only possible if we know what the other side needs.  I have no illusions that the rhetoric is going to change, but I will try to do my best to set an example.  I will try to listen to those who disagree with me and to try to understand their point of view.  If we each make that little effort, then maybe we can slowly change the direction we are headed.

There has been a lot of noise about “Religious Liberty” in the public forum over the last couple of years.  I think it started when the US Catholic bishops objected to the provisions of the Affordable Care Act that required that contraception be covered by health insurance plans offered by employers.  The bishops argued that because the Catholic Church believes that the use of contraception is sinful, being “forced” to provide contraception to all their employees was a violation of their religious freedom.  And even after the law was amended to stipulate that the Church would not actually be paying for the contraception coverage, the bishops continued to oppose the measure.  By itself, this objection by the bishops might not have been more than a ripple in the pond of public discourse.

But the bishops had planted a seed that was to blossom into a much broader debate about the role of religion in the public sphere. As the same-sex marriage fight culminated in the Supreme Court’s decision that laws that prohibit same-sex marriage were unconstitutional, the same arguments began to be used by opponents of same-sex marriage. They argued that “religious liberty” gave them and their businesses the right to refuse services to homosexuals.  And now, the same arguments are being used to oppose equal treatment for the transgendered.

The problem with all of these arguments is that it is based on an unreasonably broad understanding of “Religious Liberty”. The concept of Freedom of Religion is all about freedom of conscience.  Everyone is free to believe as they wish, without coercion from others.  However, the concepts of religious freedom do NOT extend to people imposing their beliefs on others.  As with all rights, an individual’s rights only extend to the point where they impinge upon those of other people.

In spite of what some business owners seem to argue, accepting payment for providing services is NOT tantamount to condoning something you believe is wrong.  The morality of doing business is different that individual or personal morality.  The moral good in business is about treating customers fairly and equally, providing goods and services at a fair price, without cheating or lying.  These should be the measures by which we judge the morality of business practices.  The personal beliefs of the individuals involved just shouldn’t matter.

Being forced to treat all potential customers equally is not a form of religious persecution, and the owners of these businesses are not martyrs, as I’ve sometimes seen them called (not the least because they aren’t being killed…).

These issues have faded somewhat from the public discourse, in part because the politicians who supported these positions have found themselves marginalized this year.  However, the issues continue to simmer in the background, and those who feel that their religious values are being threatened are still out there, biding their time, waiting for opportunities to impose their beliefs on their communities, without any consideration for the rights of others.
I have been reluctant to 'unfriend' people on Facebook because of political content they post.  Even when I strongly disagree with the positions they support, I worry that unfriending people will leave me in an echo chamber where I only see posts that reinforce my own biases.  However, last week I finally unfriended a couple of people because I found the memes they shared to be irresponsible and offensive (and because the individuals in question were people I was only distantly acquainted with...I have several closer connections that have posted similar items that I have not (yet) unfriended).

The meme that finally pushed me over the edge was this one:

There are several reasons this particular meme bothers me.  First is that implication that the individuals shown in the image are on welfare.  I see nothing in that image to indicate that these women are on any form of public assistance.  I can only surmise why the creator of this meme assumed this to be the case, and the only conclusions I can come to involve racism and/or sexism.

And then there's the proposal espoused by the language of the meme itself.  The first amendment protects the right of people to disrespect the flag as a form of protected free speech.  This was clearly established when the Supreme Court ruled that burning the flag is a form of free speech that is protected by the first amendment.  I know that there are many people who don't like this ruling, but the protection of free speech is only meaningful if it protects the rights of those who express ideas that you don't like or agree with.  What I find especially troublesome in this meme is that it is essentially arguing that those on welfare should have their first amendment rights restricted.  In other words, the benefits of the Bill of Rights do not apply to the poor.  This is yet another example of the disturbing current trend to marginalize and disenfranchize the poor in this country.

It seems that the war on poverty has somehow morphed into a war against the poor.  Rather than finding ways to help the poor escape poverty, we, as a society, increasingly seem to be trying to find ways to punish the poor for being poor.  The efforts in Kansas to limit the ability of welfare recipients to collect their benefits are just an example of how far we seem to be willing to go to make life more difficult for those who are most in need of our help.

Buried deep in our national psyche is the idea that hard work leads to success.  A consequence of this belief is the idea that the lack of success must be the result of laziness or an unwillingness to work.  These ideas are rooted in a Calviinist/Puritan Protestant work ethic which provides a noble motivation for people to put forth their best efforts in all that they do, but which fails to consider all of the other factors that can trap people in poverty.  The myth of the lazy welfare recipient who is milking the system is strongly held by many people, but in reality, poverty is a systemic trap that can be virtually impossible to escape from.  Instead of assuming the worst of the poor and punishing them for being trapped, we should recognize how limited their options are and find ways to help them escape from the systems that prevent them from getting ahead.
Some days it can be difficult to find things that motivate me to write.  Today is NOT one of those days.  I just finished reading my morning newspaper (and yes, I do actually read a real, printed newspaper every day!), and there are any number of articles that I feel an urge to respond to, any of which would be worthy of a full post on its own.  However, I do actually need to do some other things with my time today, so I'm just going to provide a bullet list of short thoughts instead.

-  Ferguson, MO - I am not going to express an opinion about the decision by the Grand Jury...The process is what it is, and second guessing it does not solve anything.  The response to the decision, on the other hand, merits comment.  I don't think anyone is surprised by the rioting, looting, and burning that has erupted in the wake of the decision, but it is entirely the wrong response.  Such violent responses reinforce negative stereotypes and undermine the efforts of those who are struggling to change the conditions that lead to this whole situation.

 -  University of Virginia - Does it surprise me that a girl was gang-raped at a fraternity party?  I wish I was.  Am I outraged that no one reported the crime or otherwise stood up to defend the young lady?  Absolutely!  We need to stop thinking about rape as being fundamentally about sex...rape is about power and violence.  The culture of silence and shame that protects the violent creeps who do this needs to end, and men have just as much responsibility for making that happen as women do.

 -  Immigration reform - Politics aside, I think it should be abundantly clear to almost everyone that our current immigration system is horribly broken.  I don't know how to fix it, but I can see that something needs to be changed.  It also seem clear to me that the President would have preferred for the action to have come from Congress in the form of legislation...he's said as much.  However, Congress has proven to be utterly unwilling or unable to make any progress towards producing such legislation.  The President is using his authority to do what he can in the vacuum created by the failure of the Legislature to legislate.  If Congress doesn't like his actions, they can overrule it by passing a law!
As I pointed out in my previous posting, there seems to be a number of constitutional issues where it would appear that we have reached the point where consideration of amendments to the US Constitution ought to be considered.  But how can we actually accomplish this?  The current political climate suggests that a meaningful discussion of these issues, directed at establishing some consensus as to the nature of such amendments, is not likely. It is almost certain that the current Congress would be unable to garner the support of ⅔ of the members of both houses required before any such amendments can be submitted to the states for ratification.  Furthermore, a comprehensive revision of the Constitution by Congress would divert too much time and attention of our legislators from the significant other business that they should be attending to.

However, Article V of the Constitution provides another option.  A Constitutional Convention can be convened for the purposes of proposing amendments to the Constitution, if approved by ⅔ of the states.  The Constitution does not place any limitations on the number of such amendments such a convention could propose, and places very few restrictions on the types (namely, no state shall be deprived of equal representation in the Senate without its consent).  It also does not appear that the states that authorize such a convention necessarily have to agree as to the goals for such a convention, so long as they agree that it should happen.  Any amendments that arise from such a convention would then be submitted to the states for ratification (with ¾ of the states required), so that the Convention would cut Congress out of the process entirely.

While getting ⅔ of the states to agree to call such a convention might be difficult, it is not difficult to see that if you were looking for a comprehensive revision of the Constitution, the campaign for such a convention could focus on the issues important in different states/regions to build local support for the convention.  There is little likelihood that enough states would view the same issues as important enough to convene a Constitutional Convention, but if we tailor the arguments to the issues in each state, there just might be enough states that have some issue that they consider important enough, even if that issue varies from state to state.

Unlike Congress, the delegates to a Constitutional Convention are all, in effect, term limited.  There will be no second term and therefore no need to pander to any electorate.  While it seems obvious that special interest groups would certainly attempt to influence such a convention, creating a one-time assembly for the purposes of amending the constitution would seem to lessen the influence of such interests, since the delegates should not be focused on being re-elected.  With a little bit of luck, this would serve to temper the debate, allowing a more reasoned discussion and perhaps some meaningful consensus.  If the historical precedent of the original Constitutional Convention were followed, where the debates of the convention were conducted in secret, then the possibility for such consensus might be even more improved.

Will any of this happen?  Probably not.  But there are plenty of reasons why it might be a good idea to consider.
Okay, say we agree that the Constitution was never intended to be treated as some sort of sacred, infallible document, and that it should be amended to reflect the changing requirement of the country over time.  If that is the case, then what are the issues that need to be addressed in amending the Constitution?  What are the areas that are creating conflict or which fail to address the realities of the United States in the Twenty-first Century?  Are there any situations that simply aren’t contemplated by the Constitution, as it currently exists?

Probably, if you asked a hundred people to answer those questions, you would get a hundred uniquely different lists of issues to address.  Some of the ideas might inspire others, while some would appear trivial or ridiculous to others.  Wading into this swamp will probably get messy, but it seems clear that there are many issues that might be worthy of consideration.

One area that has been getting a LOT of media attention lately is gun ownership.  The Second Amendment was written at a time when the state of the art for firearms was a muzzle loading musket, and the nation faced imminent threats from global colonial powers and unfriendly native peoples.  Today, the technology of firearms has advanced to the point where an individual can easily carry more firepower than an entire colonial militia.  At the same time, the risks of foreign invasion or of armed insurrection have become vanishingly remote.  It seems obvious that the Second Amendment really could stand to be updated to reflect these changes.  Unfortunately, this is one of the areas in the Constitution where it might be the most difficult to find anything resembling a consensus, making the chances of an amendment here very remote indeed.

Another area that virtually begs for attention is the way our political campaigns operate.  The Constitution is silent on these issues, since the political parties and campaigns, as we know them, simply did not exist when the document was written.  It seems reasonable that we might at least consider limits on the amount of money that can be contributed to such campaigns.  Barring that, a stricter disclosure requirements would provide transparency, so the voters might have a chance to see who is really funding various campaigns.  We also should consider implementing a Constitutional definition of corporate personhood (as distinguished from individual personhood).  The idea of corporate personhood is important in civil and criminal law, as it allows us to hold corporations responsible for their actions.  However, in the wake of recent Supreme Court rulings, corporations now have equal footing with individuals in electoral politics.  Should corporations have this much influence in our elections?  This is an area that seems perfectly suited to clarification by constitutional amendment.  And while we are re-evaluating our electoral processes, we might also want to have a debate about the relative merits of the Electoral College (Does it still make sense?  What other models might work?) and term limits (Do incumbants have too great an advantage in our elections, and if so, are term limits, which are strongly anti-democratic in nature, the best answer?).

The Constitution is also disturbingly inadequate in addressing continuity of government during an emergency.  While there are provisions that allow for the rapid replacement of Senators, and we have a clearly defined chain of succession for the Presidency, the mechanism set forth in the Constitution for the replacement of members of the House of Representatives requires special elections, a mechanism that simply does not allow the House to be reconstituted in the aftermath of a devastating attack or disaster (think about what might have happened if the fourth plane had not crashed in PA on 11 Sept. 2001).  The loss of a majority of Representatives in such a crisis would handcuff the ability of the United States to respond, since any emergency appropriations for such a response are required to be initiated by the House, which would not be able to act until sufficient seats are refilled.  It seems clear that we should amend the Constitution to either provide for a mechanism for filling those seats in the event of a national emergency, or provide some other mechanism that authorize the Executive to respond to the emergency during the interim.

Additionally, a long overdue issue that we really need to take up is the issue of representation for the residents of the District of Columbia.  It is self-evidently unfair that the residents of DC must pay federal taxes, and that their local government is subject to Congressional oversight, but they lack any true representation in Congress.  Either we need to amend the Constitution to provide them with true representation, or we should exempt DC residents from federal taxes and give them a true self-rule for local government, without Congressional oversight.

Modern technology is raising a great number of issues regarding personal privacy.  While the Supreme Court has found a right to privacy to be inherent in the Constitution, it is perhaps time that the document be amended to both make this right explicit and also maybe define what the limits of this right might be.  Such an amendment would help us define boundaries in this area as we move forward with new technologies.

We could go on and on...what about a line-item veto?  The filibuster?  War powers?  Clearly, there are plenty of areas where we could amend the Constitution to clarify how it should apply or what our policy should be, or simply to address issues that simply were never contemplated when the document was written.

It has become fashionable in certain political circles to treat the U.S. Constitution as some type of sacred document, providing the final answer on all legal issues, infallible and unchanging. Proponents of this idea call this “strict constructionism”, where the meaning of the document can only be determined by looking to what the “framers” would have understood it to mean. This view forces us to consider legal problems raised by our modern world entirely within a framework that was built to address the issues of a world that has all but disappeared. The results are often far from satisfactory, with legal decisions that either defy common sense in our modern context, or else rely upon rationales that are more contorted than a Cirque du Soleil performer.

But this attitude towards the Constitution strikes me as problematic for any number of reasons. After all, if we look at the process that created the document, it seems highly unlikely that those that created it would have looked at it as being a perfect document. In fact, the opposite is pretty clearly true, as it was amended (i.e., changed) almost as soon as it was ratified. After all, the entire document was the product of a series of compromises, which naturally failed to be fully satisfactory to anyone, but which represented the best chance for consensus among those who were tasked with creating it. And since then, we have amended it twenty-seven times[1], which also clearly suggests that the original document was far from perfection.

Strict constructionists often invoke Thomas Jefferson as supporting their position. Jefferson was a believer in a limited Federal Government, and, in his view, any power or authority that wasn’t expressly given to the Federal Government belonged to the states or the people. It is this view that is rolled out to suggest that we shouldn’t re-interpret the Constitution to reflect our times. But Jefferson’s understanding of the limited application of the document did not reflect a view that the document would remain viable and applicable through time. If new powers were needed, Jefferson believed that the Constitution could and should be amended to expressly address the matter. He even went so far as to suggest that it would be best if the Constitution was thrown away entirely every generation and a new one written.

We now have a long history of reinterpreting the Constitution to address the changing ideals and circumstances of the nation. The problem is that some of these reinterpretations so stretch the original document or are based on such nebulous connections that the principles that rest upon them become subject to a great deal of disagreement.

But there is a solution, and it is sitting right before us in the plain language of the document and in the twenty-seven previous examples. We could resolve a number of troubling political and legal issues by amending the Constitution to address them. Certainly, this would be a difficult process, but it is one that would allow us to have a constructive debate about the ideals and values we want the Constitution to embody, especially as it relates to those issues, and in the end, any amendments that are actually enacted should reflect some general consensus, however limited

So then, what issues need to be addressed in such a process? And given the political stalemate that seems to have such a firm grip upon Congress these days, how on earth do we actually have the vigorous but productive debate that is necessary to build a general consensus on these issues? These are excellent questions to explore in later posts.

[1]This doesn’t count the unsuccessful amendment attempts, which include, among others, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) which would have prohibited discrimination based on gender, the District of Columbia Voting Rights amendment which would have provided residents of DC with representation in Congress.

The gun control debate[1] rages on (and on...).  As I see the seemingly endless stream of posts on my Facebook feed from both sides, I find myself alternating between anger and despair.  While both sides of this issue have become entrenched and are stubbornly repeating the same points over and over again, I find much of what is being presented by the “gun rights” advocates to be especially disturbing.  There is an ugliness to these postings that make me worry about the extremes to which some of these people might be willing to go to defend their positions.  Additionally, these same postings seem to reflect an almost willful ignorance that I find simply inexcusable.

Why is it that so much of the rhetoric from those opposed to gun control appears to be motivated by fear and paranoia?  One of the frequent arguments is that gun ownership is important so that the people can oppose a tyrannical government.  They make it sound like there is an imminent threat of the government stripping us of all our rights.  Where does this paranoia come from?  One recent posting suggested that the protections of the first amendment are in imminent danger of being revoked, and that we will need our guns so as to defend our first amendment rights.  I simply don’t get it…I simply don’t see any evidence that the government is trying to roll back the first amendment.  In fact, the Supreme Court has strongly upheld the first amendment in recent decisions, even for those who use them in the most despicable ways (I’m think of the Westboro Baptist Church, for example).

It strikes me that the fear and paranoia of the opponents of sensible gun control is the same fear and paranoia that drives those who believe in various conspiracy theories.  I don’t understand this mindset, but it certainly doesn’t appear to be rational.  And because it isn’t rational, it becomes impossible to convince those with this mindset that they might be mistaken.  They view the world from within a bubble that distorts their impressions, and so they interpret the actions of others in ways that reinforce their worldview.  Thus any effort to impose any limitations on the right to bear arms is understood as just the first step down the road to a total ban on all guns and the revocation of the second amendment.

So, while the content of many of these postings does anger me, that anger is often followed by a sense of despair.  I long for a meaningful debate, where both sides come to the table willing to at least listen to the other side and acknowledge their honest motives.  Unfortunately, the paranoia evident on at least one side seems to suggest that such a discussion is fundamentally impossible.  And without such a discussion, any effort to impose meaningful and sensible limitations on firearms will just be fuel on the fire of the oppositions fear.

[1] I use the term “debate” a bit loosely, since a true debate implies that the opposing sides are actually trying to bridge the gap between them, and I’m far from convinced that the current dynamics include any such effort.

"It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. You know, I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.” - Rep. Todd Akin

If you haven’t read or heard that quote, I’m guessing that you haven’t been following the news this week. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a politician flush his career down the toilet in such a glaringly obvious fashion as this. This statement, explaining why Akin doesn’t believe that abortion is necessary in cases of rape, is so blatantly wrong-headed and misogynist that I cannot conceive of any way for him to resuscitate his career.

There has been plenty of analysis about this statement, which includes a disturbing parsing of rape into “legitimate” and (presumably) illegitimate categories (are we ever going to stop blaming the victim?), and a bizarre pseudo-medical “wish it were so” scenario about the risks of pregnancy during rape that can’t possibly be grounded in any true science. It also manages to address the existence of the rapist and the child while entirely dismissing the presence of the woman involved, as if her life and concerns were of no consequence.

But the thing about all this that truly terrifies me is that, as pointed out by Eugene Robinson in today’s Washington Post, Aiken is a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Really? How scary is it that a man who believes that a woman’s body can “shut the whole thing down” if she is raped gets to decide Federal policy and spending priorities for Science? No wonder our policies in these areas seem so completely screwed up.

This statement, made in support of an anti-abortion policy position, is the most clear illustration of how the anti-abortion movement has sold it soul, willingly accepting the most misogynist, illogical arguments, as long as they support the ultimate goal of making abortions illegal. In the process, the movement has lost sight of the big picture: there are real people involved, people who have to face real life consequences to their choices, and whose circumstances very often don’t lend themselves to the overly simplistic arithmetic that supports the anti-abortion position. Reality is far too messy for such a simplistic approach.

To those who truly would like to see a reduction in the number of abortions, I would suggest a different approach. Instead of lobbying for a legal ban on abortions and preaching about the evils of abortion, why don’t we try to address the social circumstances that force women to consider abortion in the first place. If we were to approach this issue with an attitude of compassion, instead of one of anger, we might be able to put ourselves into the shoes of the women, to empathize with their situations, and thus find ways to help them. I find it infuriating that so many of those who oppose abortion also oppose almost every reasonable measure that might address the need for abortion, including meaningful sex education for children and social programs that would provide safety nets for at risk populations. And, as illustrated by Aiken, many of those opposed to abortion also seem to be operating from a misogynist world view where any meaningful understanding of the needs of women is simply impossible.
It seems to me that it is long past time to find a solution to the problem of Congressional Representation for the people who live in the District of Columbia. The House of Representatives is currently considering legislation that would impose limitations on abortions in the District of Columbia. Not only do the residents of DC not have any representatives that can vote on this issue, but during a subcommittee hearing for this bill, their non-voting delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, was not even allowed to speak. If that isn’t the antithesis of representative democracy, I don’t know what is. Regardless of your position on the issue of abortion, we should all be outraged that Congress is willing to impose legislation without so much as even considering the views of those upon whom the law will be enforced.

An analysis about why we can't seem to give DC true representation )

Our elected "leaders" are suffering from an acute lack of any ability to actually demonstrate any leadership.  We are now in the second week of the third quarter of the Federal fiscal year, and we still do not have a Federal budget.  The government has been operating on temporary spending authorizations thus far, but the current one expires at midnight Friday night, and Congressional leaders have indicated that no further extensions are forthcoming.  We will have a budget, or the government will close.  With just over 48 hours left to the deadline, the budget negotiations appear to be stalled, and a Federal shutdown seems likely.

The last time our politicians played this game was 1995.  Clinton was President and Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House, and the resulting closure was 21 days long.  My office remained open through the closure, in part because we generate our own revenue through user fees, rather than rely upon tax revenue allocated from Congress.  To my recollection, as the deadline loomed that time, we were informed early and often that we would remain open, so that I don't remember being concerned on a personal level.

This time, there has been exactly NO information coming from our agency leaders, which I find deeply disturbing.  The contrast to what I remember from last time worries me.  It makes me think that I may well find myself on an unpaid vacation next week.  Even my supervisors are in the dark.  I spoke with one of them yesterday, and he was as frustrated by the lack of information as I was.  He said that it feels like the administration doesn't want to discuss details about a possible shutdown because they don't want to sound like they're admitting it could happen!  I've seen reports in the news media that suggest elements of my agency may remain open, but that just feels like a rumor in the absence of any official information.

If we have a complete failure of leadership and the government does shut down, it is going to create widespread hardship among Federal employees.  The current political climate on Capitol Hill is significantly less friendly to Federal employees that it was in 1995, when furloughed employees were given back pay for the closure period when the budget was finally approved.  That is less likely to happen this time.

Meanwhile, the politicians continue to spew rhetoric and show little, if any, concern for the impact a shutdown will have, both on employees and on the public, who would feel the impact in the reduction in services provided by the Federal Government.  These are real people, with real lives, and our elected representatives are playing politics with them.
Perhaps it's because the outcome of the congressional race in my district was entirely predictable, but I find myself without any strong emotional reaction to the results of Tuesday's elections. There may be additional factors at work, as well.

I've been listening to the "My History Can Beat Up Your Politics" podcast ( for several months now, and Bruce Carlson, the podcaster, provides an excellent and thoughtful analysis of the history of American politics. One of the things he's been emphasizing for weeks is that it is entirely normal for the President's party to lose seats in Congress in the mid-term elections. In fact, it is so common that the opposite result can be considered an anomaly. So, in a sense, what happened on Tuesday is an entirely normal and predictable result of American politics. While the rhetoric of this years campaigns certainly ranks among some of the nastiest, the outcome seems to be entirely within the predictable range, based on historical results. So, the changes on Capitol Hill did not really surprise me.

Furthermore, I'm not entirely convinced that the change will be a bad thing. While the Republicans (in particular the supporters of the "Tea Party" movement) will crow about their victory, the reality is that they will not have sufficient numbers to over-ride a presidential veto. The Republican majority in the House will NOT be able to fully dictate the legislative agenda. They will need to convince the President to sign their bills, and will need to accommodate the Democrats in the Senate. Furthermore, now that they control the House, they will need to demonstrate that they can actually accomplish something. Hopefully, this will lead to a more bi-partisan dialog and a reduction in the divisive rhetoric of the last few years. Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic, but while there may be an initial showdown between the two parties, I believe that once we get beyond that, we may find a more pragmatic atmosphere settling over Capitol Hill.

So, while I'm sympathetic to the hand-wringing of many of my friends, I'm not sure that the election results are the sign of impending disaster that some people seem to think they are. Time will tell, but I sincerely hope that this will be a turning point towards a return towards a somewhat less dysfunctional political debate.
The current atmosphere of suspicion and anger directed towards America's Islamic minority has me reflecting on our history, and in particularly our history of Anti-Catholicism. While the issues aren't exact parallels, there are many striking similarities. Much of the current debate centers around claims that the growing numbers of Muslims in this country will overwhelm our system of law and impose a Sharia legal system in its place. There are questions about the loyalty of American Muslims, about the alleged incompatibility of being a Muslim and and American.

Much of this sounds strikingly similar to the rhetoric of the American Party (i.e., the "know nothings") in the middle of the 19th Century. Spurred on my the large numbers of Catholic immigrants from Europe, the "Know nothings" argued that these Catholic immigrants would obey their priest and bishops rather than the secular authority of this country. There was a belief that the Pope was plotting to use the Catholic vote to subvert the legal system and legislate a Catholic system in its place. Questions about whether it was possible to be both a good Catholic and a loyal American lingered well in to the 20th Century, when such questions were raised during the Presidential campaign of John Kennedy.

While the majority of this country seems to have accepted that Catholic Americans are loyal and present no threat to the nation, the current rhetoric shows that perhaps we need to revisit the lessons of this history. The current opposition to the building of Islamic Centers in NYC is the most visible case, but there is also vocal opposition to the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro, TN. In all likelihood, the opponents in these cases are either unaware of this history, or would dismiss it as not relevant. After all, I don't know that there was any allegations that the Catholic Church was actively engaged in violent terrorism in the 19th Century. However, in both cases, bigotry has allowed the opponents to use a religious label as a smear against an entire segment of the population. It was wrong then, and it is just as wrong today.
Virginia exit poll.

Apparently last year was an anomaly. It is the morning after election day, and I find myself upset about the election results. This seems to be my norm, but I really enjoyed feeling upbeat and positive after last year's election. Not so much, this year.

I was looking at the exit poll for the Virginia gubernatorial election (linked above). The demographic numbers weren't really very surprising (though I would've expected the independent voters to be a little more evenly split). What surprised me, though, was the response to the question: "Which one issue mattered most in deciding how you voted for governor?". The overwhelming majority identified Economy/jobs as the most important issue.

Given all the news about the economy, I guess this shouldn't have surprised me. But I guess I'm fortunate to have a career that has insulated me from the economy. The economic downturn hasn't really had a meaningful impact on me, so it wasn't really an issue I gave much thought to. On the other hand, I have been growing increasingly frustrated by the growing transportation problems in this region, and the complete lack of reasonable response from our state leaders. For me solving our transportation crisis (and how to pay for it) was the critical issue. But this came in LAST in the exit poll.

Its a reminder that my experiences are far from the norm for Virginians. As an outlier, I need to step back and remember that all those voters in the rural regions of the state don't have to cope with horrendous traffic and resent being asked to pay to solve problems that they don't feel impact them. These are probably also the same voters who have felt the impact of the weak economy the most strongly. Once upon a time, I was one of those voters--as a voter in Upstate New York, I used to have similar attitudes regarding issues that involved New York City. Now I'm sitting on the other side, frustrated that the rest of the state is unwilling to address the growing problems in my region.

So, I'm not particularly happy with the outcome of the election, but I can take consolation in knowing that things will change. The Virginia Governor cannot run for re-election (a really weird term limit, IMO), so in four years we will elect someone else.
There's a quote from South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford that's all over the news today, but I'm having some difficulty swallowing it. In yesterday's press conference explaining his 5 day absence from the state and apologizing for an extra-marital affair, the Governor said "The bottom line is this: I have been unfaithful to my wife." Excuse me? As despicable as the infidelity is, I don't think its the bottom line on this incident. As Governor, Sanford is the chief executive of the South Carolina state government. To disappear for five days without telling anyone where he was going, or providing any means for anyone to contact him represents a gross dereliction of duty. His responsibility to the governance of the state dictates that he be available to address any emergencies or other issues that might arise. To be out of contact with his staff and other representatives of the state government for five days seriously impairs the ability of the state to respond, and is absolutely inexcusable. That is the bottom line, Governor.
Virginia politicians seem to be sticking their feet in their mouths with disturbing regularity lately. Last month, it was Congressman Virgil Goode attacking the use of the Koran to swear in a fellow Congressman (see my summary). Yesterday, in an interview, State Legislator Frank D. Hargrove, Sr. criticized a proposal for the state to issue an apology for slavery, saying that blacks "should get over" slavery. He went on to compare asking the state to apologize for slavery to asking Jews to apologize for killing Christ.

Wow! Talk about equal opportunity offensiveness. Both of these incidents come on the heels of the "macaca" flap during George Allen's unsuccessful bid for re-election to the U.S. Senate. Is it me, or are Virginia's politicians allowing their "good ol' boy" roots to show? At least the House of Delegates reacted strongly to Del. Hargrove's remarks, which is more than I can say for the House of Representatives (which failed to react at all to Rep. Goode's remarks).

[via The Washington Post and the Charlottesville Daily Progress]
Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va) recently sent a letter to constituents in which he wrote "if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office" and
"We need to stop illegal immigration totally and reduce legal immigration and end the diversity visas policy pushed hard by President Clinton and allowing many persons from the Middle East to come to this country. I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped."

All of this was in response to the announcement by Keith Ellison (D-Minn) that he will use the Koran during his swearing-in ceremony.

Is this guy for real? When did the freedom of religion come to mean "only for Christians"? This is perhaps the single most offensive thing I've heard from an elected official, and they tend to be a pretty offensive lot to begin with. In all likelihood, this probably won't be a big issue in his district (Virginia's 5th Congressional District, which covers the West-Central and Southern portions of the state). And people wonder why I still refuse to think of myself as a Virginian, even after living here for almost 17 years.

Read the entire letter in the C-Ville Weekly.

[via The Washington Post]