Thursday, July 29, 2004

Convention speeches

Feel free to post your comments about Democratic convention speakers, especially Kerry, here.

Column 8: What's Good For The Syndicate

Another rip on corporations. I swear, after this one I'll leave those poor mistreated billionaires alone for a while :-)

For me, the most memorable character in Joseph Heller's masterpiece novel Catch-22 was mess-officer-turned-black-marketer Milo Minderbinder. His sleazy schemes to control all the supply lines of the war led to some ridiculous - and sometimes downright horrifying - consequences. He bombed his own troops in Bologna to offset his losses in Egyptian cotton. He even took morphine from an airplane first-aid kit for his black-market activities. And he justified it all in the public interest: "What's good for the Syndicate," he would say, "is good for the country." "Everybody has a share."

While modern corporations are by no means as sleazy as Milo's Syndicate, they bear one striking responsibility - they claim that what's good for them is good for the country. They ask for tax cuts in the name of "economic growth." And, like Milo, they really don't care who they step on to get ahead.

Economic growth - that concept has become the Holy Grail of American politics. We are used to measuring every move we make for its possible economic effects, and if there's even a shadow of a possibility that the policy will hinder economic growth, we discard it. We deny our laborers a more realistic minimum wage because of our fear of stifling the economy. We fear the higher taxes on the wealthy necessary to pay for better health care, education, and job training for the potential workforce, because they might, possibly, hurt our precious economy.

Yes, the market is worth protecting. But we must not forget our social conscience as well. We understand that we have a duty to protect the economy, but do we not also have a duty to provide people with the best social services possible? Do we not have the responsibility to give all our children the education they need to realize their true potential, and to give those on welfare the job training necessary to bring themselves out of poverty?

And why are we so scared of hurting our economy? We fear the miniumum wage increase because of possible negative effects on employment. But after the last minimum wage increase in 1996, jobs were actually created rather than destroyed. Economists such as David Card and Alan Krueger have demonstrated that the minimum wage has no negative effect on employment, and indeed might even boost employment. Right now, a worker laboring full-time at the minimum wage makes 60% of the poverty level. This is pathetic. No one should work full-time and still be unable to pull themselves out of poverty. The cornerstone of the capitalist system is the assurance that hard, honest work can earn someone a comfortable life - we must ensure that this opportunity exists for everyone. And yet, we still decide to side with the corporations even on this issue - what's good for the Syndicate, after all, is good for the country.

As a capitalist society, we must ensure that everyone has an opportunity to make an honest living and contribute to the economy. More importantly, as a society we have a responsibility to care for those who are less fortunate. It is a failing of our society that one-fifth of Americans live in poverty - it is a drag upon our potential as a nation, our prosperity, and our freedom. In the words of John Edwards, it doesn't have to be this way. If we stop pandering to our poor mistreated corporations, we can fix these problems. It is a matter of some debate whether government or the market is the correct tool to use to fix these problems, but whatever solution path we choose, we must remember that what's good for the Syndicates is not always good for the country. We must not sacrifice our social conscience at the altar of economic growth.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Obama for President! (well, someday)

Yeah, I just got done watching Illinois state Senator Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic convention. Damn, he's impressive. And positive. And a great speaker. And the "funny name" thing is something I can relate to :)

Audience Participation!

The role of government is an issue addressed all too rarely in our political discourse. This is your opportunity to engage me and your fellow readers in a debate over government's proper role in our society. Some of my random ramblings are below - feel free to skip them and head straight for the comments if you want. I warn you, though, any posts that I consider too ad hominem will be removed. This is not to imply that I don't believe in free speech. I just don't like insults on my blog, unless they're directed at Jerry Falwell or Ann Coulter.

At least since the 1980s, American politics has been operating under the assumption that government is a "necessary evil" that we should have as little of as possible. Reagan's statement that "government is not the solution, government is the problem" has pretty much summed up the attitude of most Americans towards government. Even Clinton, a moderate liberal, declared the era of big government over.

But is it time to challenge that assumption? I was reading "Stand Up, Fight Back" by Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. when he made the statement that government does not get in the way of liberty. In fact, government is the sole guarantor of liberty.

This seems obvious enough. Without government enforcement, anyone could steal anyone else's stuff - there'd be no property rights. Furthermore, we'd have no right to live the life we want to live - we'd be at the mercy of the guys with all the guns and money.

Dionne expands this further, arguing that a free market would not work without government regulation either. History bears him out on this one - anti-trust actions such as the ones taken by Teddy Roosevelt have been required to keep competition and innovation in the market.

So government is necessary to protect liberty and to keep the market running smoothly. But how do we define these terms?

For example, health care. Since "life" is one of those inalienable rights that we all can (mostly) agree on, and since adequate health care is essential to maintaining life, we can argue that each citizen has a right to adequate health care. The government, being the guarantor of rights, should be responsible for providing health care for everyone who cannot afford it (or whose companies do not provide it for them). But doing this requires revenue, which requires taxation. Excess taxation deprives people of some of their property rights (along with disturbing the market, if you believe libertarian economists). So where does the line fall?

For another example, regulations. Many regulations protect the rights of a large number of people. The minimum wage law guaranteed - at the time it was passed - a reasonable, livable salary for everyone who worked. Environmental regulations keep people healthy, keep our food supply unharmful, and keep our air breathable. But too much regulation can have a negative effect. Innovation can get caught up in red tape. On his campaign website, Libertarian presidential candidate Michael Badnarik tells the story of poor young aspiring entrepeneurs who are blocked by regulations which place a heavy cost on the citizen.

Liberty cannot abide in the absence of law. Often, the laws that protect one person's liberty infringe upon another's. And the lack of laws that ensure one person's liberty can prevent another from reaping its full benefits.

Is there a way for government to always protect liberty? What is the proper role of government in our society? I humbly ask my readers to voice their opinions below...

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Column 7: Service With A Smile

The ideas in this column are Danielle's. Like my Column 6, it is a cultural critique - she has noticed some trends in American culture from working in retail (at B&N bookstores). It's difficult for me to capture completely, but I'll give it a shot. Dani, tell me if I've got something wrong. Here goes:

Anyone who lives within the advertising range of CiCi's Pizza has heard the radio ad. A woman is welcomed to a fast-food restaurant by a clerk. Immediately she sets upon him; seems she expected the poor kid to open the door for her family (never mind the fact that in the ad, the young man is obviously behind the counter). What's more, she expects him to drop everything that he's doing at the time to take her order. She appears to blame the clerk for the fact that the food is taking forever, expects him to offer her two-year-old a high chair without her asking for one, and is disappointed when he says that he is on his break.

Rest assured, I will never eat at a CiCi's Pizza again.

I'm not cynical enough to believe that CiCi's is trying to send the message that the staff is at the center of fast-food's problems, or even part of them. The chain tries to make the point that fast-food is, by nature, a less pleasant experience than their restaurant. Their major unforgivable failing is this: they forget that the guy behind the counter is a living, breathing, sentient human being.

It's not an uncommon error. Those who have worked in retail all have stories of people treating them as if they were superhuman automatons, expecting them to be everywhere, do everything, and take their absurd and often condescending complaints with an understanding smile. People in clothing stores try on clothes and leave them wherever they feel like leaving them, not even bothering to clean up after themselves. Danielle has told me numerous times that she has had to replace stacks of magazines that people read and leave by their seat. The customer just tells himself, with a presumptuous air, "it'll be taken care of." My friend and former roommate Ben wrote a humor piece about how our fellow Vanderbilt students expected "magical services." The point, of course, is that people don't realize that other humans, ones just like themselves, are doing the brunt work.

If the flippant way in which customers often treat service employees sounds familiar, it's because you've seen it before. It appears in the novels of Dickens and the plays of Shakespeare. P.G. Wodehouse made fun of it brilliantly over a century ago. It is the way the stereotypical rich person would treat their servants - gruffly, uncaringly, as if they were invisible.

In America, people of all classes are encouraged to aspire upwards, that no matter how much money you have, it's better to have more. We are a nation of people who want to be rich. As a result, some middle-class Americans let their aspirations for money spill over into the way they conduct their interpersonal relations - in other words, they want to be rich, and they want to have servants.

Service employees fill this desire of the middle class to have servants. When a customer walks into a store nowadays, their working assumption is that the employee is their personal servant, and so corporate bosses make sure their employees act that way. The result is such inane philosophies like "the customer is always right," "never say no to a customer," and "service with a smile." No employee can even suggest to the most obnoxious customer that they are being rude or inconsiderate lest they risk dismissal. Essentially, the market - a reflection of the desires of the people, according to Adam Smith - has created a group of servants in response to the middle class' desires.

It is important for all consumers - and we're all consumers - to realize that retail workers are forced to act like the customers' servants. Retail workers are in no way servants, and do not deserve to be treated that way. When we are customers, we need to understand the following: No, the customer is not always right. No, it's not disrespectful when an employee doesn't smile. Yes, employees are - gasp - actual human beings. And yes, that means that everyone must treat the employee assisting them with the cordiality and respect that they deserve.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Vote for me!

Apparently, there's a Jeff Woodhead running for a seat in the Utah State House, District 22 as the candidate of some pseudo-Libertarian outfit. So if you're from Magna, UT or the west side of the Salt Lake valley in general, vote for me! (I didn't know I was eligible to run, given that I live in North Carolina, but whatever.)

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Addendum to last post

Actually, I can think of one instance off the top of my head where judicial review was ignored. The Marshall court made a decision that the Cherokees had a right to their homeland in Appalachia. President Andrew Jackson ignored it, saying "John Marshall has made his decision - now let him enforce it." The result: the Trail of Tears.


Judicial Review Under Attack

The House debates today one of the more troubling bills currently under consideration. It is a bill that forbids courts from ruling that states must recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

It's not troubling to me because of the gay-bashing. I've come to expect that from Congressional Republicans. What's troubling to me is what the passage of this bill - if it somehow makes it through the Senate - would mean to our current system of judicial review.

Judicial review - the notion that the Supreme Court and lower courts can declare legislation unconstitutional and order it stricken from the books - is not clearly written in the Constitution. As every high-schooler learned, it was developed by Chief Justice John Marshall in the 1803 case Marbury v. Madison. Neither Congress nor the Executive gave the Court that power - they just asserted it themselves. Which means it's a shaky proposition, when you think about it.

Fortunately, until now judicial review hasn't been challenged much. Sure, it's been grumbled about - especially after Roe - but I don't know if it's been challenged in Congress before. Personally, I like judicial review - it's an added check on a Congress that is often too subject to the political winds of the day to concern itself with the constitutionality of a given law.

This bill currently under debate would purport to strip the Court of judicial review, at least in the domain of same-sex marriage. Congress is telling the Court how to interpret the constitution. I don't think it's right to tell the court how to think without a two-thirds majority and ratification by the states (an amendment, in short). First same-sex marriage, next abortion, then... Any court decision that Congress doesn't like it could thumb its nose at. Too much power in one branch for me - Congress shouldn't be judging the constitutionality of its own laws.

Worse, the Courts could subject an anti-judicial review law to judicial review. The Court, of course, would re-assert its power. Then what? Who does the Executive, responsible for enforcing laws, believe? It could basically enforce laws any way it sees fit - either ignore the Congress or the Judiciary, take your pick.


Ben said somewhere - I think it's on a comment in Jacob's blog - that Congress could, theoretically, just thumb its nose at the courts if it wanted to. Well, it's happening. Now what? That's what I'm troubled by...

Sorry for the rambling nature of this post. I didn't feel like being coherent today.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Flag burning

Guess what? The flag-burning amendment is back! And this time it might actually pass! Next step: an amendment against criticizing the government. Hold on to your civil liberties while you got 'em, folks!

also go here

For more blogging fun, go to Miguel's (in the comments to my first post) and Mike's blogs. Enjoy!

Also, Miguel pointed me to a few more libertarian sites, for those of you interested: Harry Browne and Lew Rockwell.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Article from Ben

Here's an article Ben sent me about Christianity, liberalism, and the great "values" debate. It's insightful. It also makes fun of Jerry Falwell - always a plus.

Column 6: Accountability

Double shot today...
Imagine a criminal convicted of a crime that injured innocent people. Now imagine that this criminal is claiming that he should not be punished for his actions. Furthermore, this criminal is claiming that punishing him would be detrimental to society. And on top of this, the criminal is blaming the attorney that prosecuted him for the problems of society, and denigrating his entire profession. He'd be nuts, right?
Now, imagine that half of Americans agreed with this criminal. You'd be scared, right?
This is a true story, folks. It is the story of negligent corporations who claim that their negligence should not be punished. It is the story of corporate heads who tell us that large legal settlements hurt the economy. It is the story of people who denigrate trial lawyers for holding corporations accountable. Republicans have been all too eager to make political hay out of the fact that Edwards has spent his career fighting legal battles against injurious corporate negligence.
Somehow, I expected better out of the party of Lincoln - who was a trial lawyer. But that's modern Republicans for you - stringent accountability for teachers, no accountability for corporations.
There is, of course, a problem with huge corporate negligence lawsuits. It is a problem that does diminish profits, cost jobs, and hurt the economy. It is a problem that is easily fixed. That problem is - take a deep breath, folks, this one's a shocker - corporate negligence.
Claiming that a corporation should not be subject to a multi-million dollar penalty because their faulty product caused an injury is like saying that a bank robber should not be imprisoned. And to claim that a company that is knowingly selling dangerously faulty products is above punishment is even more absurd. These settlements are hurtful, I agree. So is hard time for criminals who hurt people. CEOs can take their pick.
What is even more absurd about this whole argument is that the problem is easily solved to the benefit of everyone involved. Take, for example, John Edwards' most famous case, a multi-million dollar suit against a manufacturer of faulty pool drains. Not only did the drain hurt Edwards' client severely, but they also had a history of faulty performance. The company could have saved tons of money by not cutting corners during the design process - a little extra money spent now saves a lot down the line. If that was not possible, the company should have recalled the drains and fixed the design flaw after the first reports of faulty behavior. Either of these courses of action would have saved Edwards' client from injury and would have saved the company lots of money.
The lesson for corporations here is - another shocker - not to be negligent. Cross your i's and dot your t's every step of the way. It may cost a little bit more now, but it pays off down the line. Not only are you not subject to gigantic lawsuits, but you're also building a reputation as a dependable manufacturer of goods. You're making more money by dealing with less lawsuits. People aren't getting hurt. Everybody's happy.
To put it another way, corporations need to stop being shortsighted. A farsighted corporation would provide all its employees with affordable care, since it recognizes that added productivity of a healthy workforce will more than make up for the added cost of the health care program. A farsighted corporation will provide its employees with adequate safety training so they can avoid costly on-the-job injury compensation claims down the line. A farsighted corporation will provide workers with a living wage and adequate vacation time, since a happy worker is a more productive and dedicated worker. (Farsighted energy corporations would also put far more reserch money into renewable energy sources, but that's another column for another day.) The result of all this? Corporate farsightedness would make most government regulation of corporate activity unnecessary, which makes the conservatives happy. It would make sure everyone who works can live a decent life, which would make the liberals happy. Employee morale is high, profits are up. As I said earlier, everyone's happy.
But, of course, this isn't the lesson corporations are actually taking from the string of corporate negligence lawsuits and the threat of new labor laws. They would prefer to go on with their negligent and detrimental ways. It's time we held them accountable - not just for our good but for theirs as well.

Column 5: Antonin Scalia and Strict Constructionism

Another long one, folks... sorry.
Love him or hate him, Antonin Scalia is the most well known judicial theorist out there. Scalia's biting, sarcastic, and usually well-reasoned opinions will leave their mark on constitutional law for years to come. As such, I figured I should dedicate this column to a critique of Scalia's positions on several key cases.
Scalia is described by most judicial scholars as a strict constructionist - one who interprets the constitution literally. To him, the "implied" rights and powers that the court has found throughout our history do not exist - they were not written directly in the Constitution or envisioned by the framers of the document, thus they are illegitimate. This strict constructionism has led him to side with both political liberals and conservatives on various cases.
In his dissenting opinion in the recent Hamdi v. Rumsfeld case, Scalia reasons that the court reads too much into the Suspension Clause of the Constitution which permits habeas corpus to be suspended in times of rebellion or invasion. Here, Scalia believes that there is no military exigency against giving Mr. Hamdi, a U.S. citizen, a fair trial; thus, he must be prosecuted for treason under regular federal law. This decision puts him on the political left of the rest of the court, who ruled that there had to be some restrictions on Mr. Hamdi's rights in the case.
Scalia has sided with the liberals more than once. In the landmark free-speech case Texas v. Johnson, Scalia signed on to William Brennan's opinion that a Texas law banning flag burning is unconstitutional. He agreed with Brennan's assertion that Texas was overstepping its constitutionally permissible role in passing the law. Again, Scalia found himself agreeing with the liberals.
Scalia, however, finds himself more often than not in agreement with conservatives. In a dissenting opinion to the Court's ruling in Locke v. Davey, Scalia opined that a Washington state law that provided scholarships for all students except those who wished to attend seminary unfairly discriminated against religion. Liberals attacked the dissenters for being opposed to the separation of church and state, but Scalia's opinion is not an attack on this principle. It is instead a view that discrimination against religion is not permissible by a strict reading of the Constitution: "If the Religion Clauses demand neutrality, we must enforce them, in hard cases as well as easy ones."
The oft-attacked views of Scalia on the relationship between church and state, while repulsive to me, are consistent with his strict constructionist view. The "wall of separation" doctrine that most of us hold as sacred today is not a constitutional injunction - it was laid out in an 1802 letter by Thomas Jefferson. The only reference the Constitution makes to religion is the Establishment Clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." As such, Scalia disagrees with the notion that church and state should always be separate - the government must only refrain from making religion the law of the land. His Locke dissent demonstrates that principle.
However, his view on church-state separation often veers far from the strict constructionism he holds so dear. His views on the Pledge of Allegiance are obviously culled from a far less strict reading of the Constitution; if ever there was a state establishment of religion, Congress' addition of "under God" to the official Pledge in 1954 is such an act. To the true strict constructionist, "no law" means "no law," but this is a pliable issue for Scalia. In his 1992 Lee v. Weisman dissent, he makes references to a history of public prayer to support a loose interpretation of the Establishment Clause - stating, in essence, that sometimes the establishment of religion is constitutionally permissible. Striking a balance between establishment and free exercise in Lee v. Weisman, which deals with benedictions at public school graduations, was admittedly tricky. However, Scalia's opinion is a dangerous assault on the Establishment Clause and one that cries out for some sort of reconciliation with his usual strict constructionism.
His dissents in Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Lawrence v. Texas share the viewpoint that the opinion of the majority unfairly extends a right to people that is not listed in the constitution. He states that since abortion and gay sex are not listed in the Constitution, the Tenth Amendment defers the delegation of these rights to the specific states. In Scalia's words in the Casey decision: "The issue is whether [abortion] is a liberty protected by the Constitution of the United States. I am sure it is not.  I reach that conclusion not because of anything so exalted as my views concerning the 'concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.' Rather, I reach it for the same reason I reach the conclusion that bigamy is not constitutionally protected -- because of two simple facts: (1) the Constitution says absolutely nothing about it, and (2) the longstanding traditions of American society have permitted it to be legally proscribed."
It is in these cases that I believe Scalia's strict constructionism reaches a fault. He fails to understand the bedrock principle behind each of these cases, namely, defining the role of state and federal government in people's lives. Can the state reasonably outlaw an action because it finds the action reprehensible? Scalia states in his Romer v. Evans dissent, "This Court has no business imposing upon all Americans the resolution favored by the elite class from which the Members of this institution are selected, pronouncing that "animosity" toward homosexuality... is evil." But indeed, the Court decision in Romer imposes nothing - it merely declares that a constitutional amendment outlawing non-discrimination statutes overreaches state powers. Similar reasonings are behind Casey and Lawrence. By framing the issue as imposing a resolution or extending a right not listed in the Constitution, Scalia fails to address the issue of the rightful limits of state powers.
My main critique of Scalia, then, is not his general tendency towards political conservatism. As the first two examples demonstrate, Scalia's judicial theory cannot be buttonholed by political labels. The main difficulty I have with Scalia is his singlemindedness - he concentrates too fully on what rights are explicitly in the constitution versus what rights aren't. This leads to cases such as Casey, Romer, and Lawrence, where he fails to address the real issue behind the case in favor of claiming that the court oversteps its bounds in extending a right. Is a state within its bounds to forbid an action because its people find the action reprehensible? Scalia obviously believes that forbidding such actions is not a power the federal government possesses. Whether or not his power exists on the state level is one Scalia would do well to answer in future opinions.

The Post steals my idea...

Well, not really. Read this article and see how Democrats still have a habit of running from the L-word instead of embracing it...

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Column 4: How To Stop Religious Demagoguery

This one's a long one, folks, so get comfortable.
Election time is rolling around again. That means it's time for one of the South's grandest old traditions. This is something that, as traditions go, is up there with fried chicken, cornbread, collard greens, and the liberal use of the word "y'all," though I appreciate it about as much as the oppressive humidity through which Southerners suffer every summer. I refer, of course, to religious demagoguery.
Problem is, it's not just Southern anymore. Along with Cajun cooking, the blues, and rock 'n' roll, this is another Southern cultural phenomenon that is sweeping the nation. The Midwest, especially Kansas and Indiana, has become famous for politicians who are too eager to claim that God is on their side. It has even reach the Northeast, which is traditionally reticent on matters of faith - Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Bob Smith of New Hampshire have indulged copiously. James Dobson, founder of the ill-named Focus on the Family and the foremost religious demagogue of our day, is from Colorado.
The demagogues get their fuel from a culture of fear that seems to occupy all too many Christians in our country. It is the fear that society will shun those who practice their faith openly, and it is an undercurrent latent not only in politics but in Christian artistic expression. From the Doobie Brothers ("I don't care what they may say") to DC Talk ("What will people think when they hear that I'm a Jesus freak?"), Christian music often implies that one risks social acceptance by being Christian. Society, so the fear mantra goes, doesn't like my Christianity.
This fear is easily manipulated into political gain by opportunistic politicians. How many times have you heard some political figure say that "traditional values are under attack"? Or that "they want to take God out of our schools/government/public life"? Conservative commentator David Limbaugh (no relation to Rush) wrote an entire book about liberal "persecution" of Christianity.
A perfect case study of this manipulation of latent fears is evident in 2002's battle over the Pledge of Allegiance ruling. For those of you who have been asleep the past couple of years, the federal appeals court for the Ninth Circuit ruled that Congress' 1954 inclusion of "under God" in the official Pledge of Allegiance constituted an establishment of religion and was therefore unconstitutional. And all hell broke loose. 99 Senators and 413 Congresspeople looking to earn political points back home voted for resolutions condemning the ruling. The dissenting judge in the case - someone who should know better - claimed that "'God Bless America' and 'America The Beautiful' will be gone for sure." Opinions flew about "keeping God in our country."
Keep in mind that thanks to the First Amendment, a ruling against the Pledge would not and could not prevent it from being said by students in schools. It would not infringe upon anyone's rights to affirm their belief in God publicly or privately. It could not prevent patriotic Americans from singing "God Bless America" whenever they felt like it. In short, the role of God in this country would not have been diminished one bit. Sadly, the fearmonger politicians would rather score the easy political points by stoking an already latent fear than concern themselves with the facts of the situation.
The gay marriage debate also falls victim to the politics of religious fear. Too many people unreasonably believe that government recognition of gay marriages would somehow affect the way churches define and deal with marriage. Never mind that such interference would be unconstitutional - politicians let people buy into it anyway and reap the election year rewards. As with the pledge debate, religious demagogues use the latent fear of societal attacks on Christianity for their own political gain.
The fear at the base of all this - that Christianity is somehow under attack and societally unacceptable - is unfounded to the outside observer. 70% of our nation is Christian by the lowest estimate, and 41% of Americans describe themselves as "born-again." Billboards dot our highways saying "Jesus Saves"; crosses proliferate throughout our cities; overtly Christian movies such as "The Passion of the Christ" and "The Gospel of John" can hit box offices with almost no one decrying the expression of religion in polite society. John Kerry is routinely attacked by Republicans, the press, and even many Democrats for not being open enough about his faith. An atheist's admission of faithlessness draws a disappointed grunt from most Americans. Now what was that about mainstream society shunning the overtly religious?
But it's patently ridiculous to tell a fearful person not to fear. No fear is entirely fabricated, and to call a fear "absurd" fails to confront the reasons behind the fear. Unfortunately, there are elements on the fringes of society that do ridicule those of faith. While these people - equally as cruel as the demagogues they decry - are far from the mainstream of American society, it doesn't seem that way to the people they ridicule. Enough constant ridicule, even from the most tangential of sources, and even the most reasonable of people will begin to feel cast aside by society.
The way to end religious demagoguery, then, is not to dismiss the fears of Christians but to act to assuage them. Many of those who criticize the openly religious find a home at the left side of the political spectrum - thus the traditional evangelical Christian distaste for liberalism. An evangelical Christian friend of mine attended a meeting of Howard Dean supporters wherein someone stated that "we just have to forget about" the religious Christian set.
This exclusionism is the kind of image liberalism must avoid projecting. Liberals must take great pains to explain to Christians that they have nothing to fear from liberal ideals. Prominent liberals must restrain themselves from ridiculing those who wish to express their faith. Our leaders in Congress must carefully and cogently explain why Christianity is not under attack from the left at every turn. We must carefully demonstrate that issues such as the Pledge and gay marriage can not and will not erode Christianity.
Religious demagoguery will only stop when we make evangelical Christians understand not only that they are welcome in the liberal movement but also that the liberal movement seeks to ensure their right to express their faith as openly as they see fit. When the evangelical asks: "What will people think when they see that I'm a Jesus freak?" we must be sure to respond, "We think it's great."

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Article to read...

What's the one thing that Bill Frist and I actually agree on? Click here to find out...


Hmmm. My blog appears to be three hours behind me. Unless they moved Raleigh to the West Coast without telling me.

Overtime pay rules

Can someone provide me with a full outline of the new overtime pay rules that Bush put into effect? The Post and CNN give me articles on the reaction to the new rules, but not an explanation of the rules themselves... leave me a comment with a link or something in it, please.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Column 3: The Dreaded L-Word

Those nasty Bushies. The second that my fellow Raleighan John Edwards was added to the Democratic presidential ticket, the Republican attack machine was on him like white on rice (as we apparently say here in the South). Their horrific attacks included the use of that all-purpose insult, that withering assault intended to destroy any chance a Democrat ever had at winning. They used the dreaded L-word: "liberal."

Now it may not seem to you, dear readers, that being called "liberal" is such a horrible fate. I know I call myself "liberal" at least ten times a day. But to a politician running for national office, it is a fate worse than death. It is a knife in the heart of any candidate. It is the most intimidating and disturbing attack an opponent could launch. And however reasonable it may be - I find it difficult to believe that George Will could call moderate Kerry "the most liberal Senator" with a straight face - it has an effect.

"Liberal," to too many people, conjures up the image of some weak-willed effete quasi-Communist member of something called the "intellectual elite" (and if anyone can tell me what that is, they win a prize). The Club for Growth summed it up best when they ran an anti-Vermont ad portraying "latte-drinkers" and "sushi-eaters" as out of touch with mainstream Americans. This is an unfair portrayal - while I am an admitted sushi eater, I know several libertarians and conservatives who are guilty of the same gastronomic transgression. And it is distinctly unfair to describe the values of liberals, whether or not they indulge in caffeine and raw fish, as out of touch with mainstream America.

Mainstream liberalism is about bringing the opportunity to succeed to all Americans regardless of race, religion, or economic standing. Seems to me that when most people speak of "the American Dream," this is what they're referring to. Furthermore, liberalism is about keeping the government out of people's personal lives. I've lived in the South long enough to know that people want government messing around in their business as little as possible. Liberalism is about freedom - freedom of opportunity, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to love, freedom to live life as you choose. You can't get more American than that.

The problem, as I see it, is twofold. First, conservatives, in their zeal for victory, have waged an extensive and largely successful campaign to paint liberalism as evil, treacherous, un-American. This was the essence of the Reagan Revolution - to associate liberalism with the perceived excesses of the 1960s and the hard economic times of the 1970s. But you can't blame conservatives for that. Any politician wants to win, and the best way to win is to discredit the other guy, whether fairly or unfairly.

The real culprit is the Democrats who collectively failed to stand up for liberalism throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Instead of enthusiastically embracing liberalism as an absolutely American ideology, liberals caved to the conservatives' attacks. They began distancing themselves from the term, attempting to cozy up to the new conservative fad. Thus, the idea that liberalism was a deviant philosophy practiced only by a select few was able to foment.

The only solution here, my fellow liberals, is to follow the advice in the title of E.J. Dionne's recent book: stand up, fight back. When conservatives call you a liberal, don't be apologetic. Say "you're damn right I'm a liberal. What's wrong with that?" When we begin to say the dreaded L-word with pride, America will begin to follow.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Column 2: Flip-flop flight stop

Here's a simple request for all of you armchair pundits who use the term "flip-flop" to describe a political candidate's stances on the issues:

Stop. Now.

Calling a candidate a "flip-flopper" based on a couple of votes or speeches here and there is a ridiculous oversimplification of the political process. It is almost always wrong, it is always dangerous, and it makes you look like a complete doofus. So don't do it.

See, political issues are deeply nuanced things. Change one thing, change a million other things along with it. What's good for some people is bad for others. What seems like a good idea one minute is a horrible mistake the next. The concept of a black and white world gets blown to miniscule morsels in the political arena. Every issue is defined by a million shades of grey; there are a myriad of reasons why one person would cast a vote a certain way, or sign a certain bill, or make a certain statement.

Take John Kerry's stance on the Iraq war, for example. The Massachusetts Senator voted for a resolution "authorizing" President Bush to use force to bring down Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. He is now speaking out against the way the war was conducted. Somehow, some idiot political pundit got it in his or her head that Kerry had obviously reversed himself. The President himself joined in on the attack. And it's all wrong.

Kerry has explained his vote and his opposition thousands upon thousands of times to anyone who will listen. The rationale is simple and reasonable: Kerry voted to authorize the President because he believed that Hussein was a danger to America. Kerry also believed that Bush would seek international help in the endeavor and only go to war as a last resort. It is the fact that Bush attacked unilaterally and the fact that Bush used war as anything but a last resort that have left Kerry feeling betrayed. These things are what Kerry speaks out against. This is hardly a flip-flop; it is, however, a nuanced position. George Bush has said before that he "doesn't do nuance," but I expected better out of the press. Silly me.

(Incidentally, almost no one mentions the fact that Kerry's vote was not even important – the President could have used force in Iraq with or without Congress' approval.)
Or we can examine the attacks the Democrats have leveled on the Patriot Act. Bush accused Kerry of being "for and against" the Patriot Act, implying that Kerry has no convictions on the issue. The reality of the situation is quite different, however. Kerry – and 99 other Senators – voted for the Patriot Act in the wake of September 11th, without much debate on the bill and with a feverish desire to take all necessary steps to defeat terrorism. Two and a half years later, Kerry still believes that "much of what is in Patriot Act are good ideas." He is, however, disillusioned with the way it came out.

Truth is, Kerry, by his own admission, voted for what he called an "imperfect bill." This is what Senators do when faced with a choice between action and inaction. A vote for the Patriot Act could mean a number of different things – to Kerry, his vote meant that he believed that it was more important to act now and fix problems later than to spend time wrangling over the specifics of the bill. He is dismayed strongly by John Ashcroft's use of the Patriot Act to dismantle civil liberties; thus the attacks. And the attacks are not against the ideas behind the Patriot Act but against the specifics of the law itself – he does not advocate removing it but replacing with a better law. In other words, it is wrong to simply state that he has flip-flopped from wholehearted support to vigorous dissent.

And indeed, even when politicians do switch positions, it's rarely a horrible event. The Democrats' stance on NAFTA, for example, has changed dramatically in the past ten years. So has the President's stance on nation-building (recall that he pooh-poohed the idea during the 2000 election). But both of these shifts in political beliefs have come as the result of each politician's ideological maturation. The world is constantly changing, and a good politician will incorporate new ideas into his or her political ideology, and occasionally change the ideology as well.

The trend of oversimplification is a grave threat to our political process. Understanding an issue requires coming to terms with numerous possible interpretations of the issue. By using the term "flip-flop," we oversimplify the issue, implying that there are only two possible mutually exclusive thought patterns to choose from. In doing so, we hurt our own understanding of the issues and the candidates' often complex stances. And, of course, understanding our candidates' viewpoints is the most important part of the voting process.

So next time you feel compelled to call someone a "flip-flopper," think twice. And then don't do it.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Column 1: On Marriage

Over the weekend, George W. Bush gave a radio address dealing with the proposed "marriage amendment" that is likely to be brought to a vote this week. His comments were fairly boilerplate; he spoke negatively of "activist" judges (never mind that without activist judges our schools would still be segregated), talked about the courts imposing an "arbitrary definition" of marriage on the people, and the need for a Constitutional amendment to save the institution from being "weakened."

What bothers me most deeply about Bush's comments - and the vast majority of arguments in favor of the amendment in general - is not the fact that it transforms the most sacred document in America into a political football. Nor is it the fact that the amendment would mean little more than a slap in the face to hardworking gay Americans. The thing that bothers me most is that Bush's comments underscore a complete lack of understanding of the theory behind the American political system.

The Constitution was the result of a collective effort of people whose religious beliefs ran from strongly Christian (John Adams, George Mason) to Deist (Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin). Both sides agreed on the importance of extending religious freedom to all Americans. Article XVI of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted by devoted Christians Mason and James Madison, stated that everyone was entitled to practice religion according to their own conscience. Jefferson went even further, suggesting that a "wall of separation" should exist between the church and the state. The "wall of separation" doctrine won out; by 1791 Mason and Madison were proposing the First Amendment to the Constitution which clearly forbids the establishment of religion. The Founding Fathers, more than anyone after them, recognized that one can still be Christian and serve a secularist state.

Now back to marriage. The institution of marriage has two aspects in modern life: the religious and the secular. (This is not to be confused with John Edwards' "two Americas.") The religious aspect is the one conferred upon a couple by a priest, rabbi, imam, etc. It joins two people in the eyes of God and the religious community. It is this perception that comes to mind when most Americans think of marriage; when Bush and the right wing talk about protecting the "sanctity of marriage," this is the institution of which they speak.

But there is a secular aspect to marriage as well. Secular marriage concerns the recognition of a couple by the government. It is secular marriage that confers upon you and your spouse the right to file tax returns jointly, the right to visit one another at the hospital, the right to leave each other belongings when you die, and a whole host of other legal privileges. This is the institution that the gay and lesbian community wants extended to them.

And this is where the misunderstanding begins. The Bushes and the James Dobsons and the Bill Frists of the world fail to recognize that, thanks to that "wall of separation" and to the Constitutional injunction against establishing religion, marriage must be thought of as two separate institutions. There is the secular institution, which is under government power, and the religious institution, which must be fully separate from governmental authority.

When the right wing claims that allowing gays to marry would "change the definition of marriage," they are only half right. The secular definition of marriage would change, but the religious definition - the one with all the "sanctity" that the right wing is so eager to protect with constitutional tinkering - must remain unchanged. Looks like the ever-threatened right-wing Christians have been bailed out once again by the separation of church and state they so love to hate.

For all the doubters out there, keep in mind that the Catholic church does not consider anyone married outside the Church as a married couple. The government, of course, does. This dichotomy can exist because of the inherent separation of religious and secular marriage. The government did not change the definition of marriage for the Catholic Church by allowing Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and atheists to marry. Similarly, the government cannot change the definition of marriage for any religion if it allows gay people to enter into secular marriage.

So conservatives, before you start playing around with the Constitution, get some understanding of the subtleties of the American legal system. Recognize that the separation of church and state can benefit church as much as state. Realize that secular marriage and religious marriage are two necessarily separate entities. The core values you save may be your own.

Opening Comments

Hi. In case you don't know me... how the hell did you get here? Did you take a wrong turn or something? The Information Superhighway is the other way, man. This is the Information Back Alley Where You Get The Shit Kicked Out Of You And Someone Takes Your Megabytes.

I'll describe myself now, just in case you don't know me and, for whatever reason, decided to read on. I'm Jeff Woodhead. I'm a grad student at N.C. State in chemical engineering. That's all you need to know. Thank you, come again. (Banecker, I can hear you saying "that's what she said" from here...)

A note about what this POS (piece of shit, for those of you who aren't acronym freaks) is. I'm a political opinion junkie. You know, the kind of guy whose role models include E.J. Dionne Jr. and David Broder. And if you recognize those names, you're probably one too, so stop laughing. I discovered I like to rant a lot. So this is my outlet for all my opinions. Thus the name of the site.

I'm a liberal. So the opinions you'll be getting on this page are coming from slightly left of center. And not well researched at all. You want well-researched columns, read the Post (Cohen, Dionne, and Raspberry from the left; Broder, Applebaum, and Ignatius from the center; and Will and Krauthammer from the right). If you're a real glutton for punishment and you want a libertarian view, check out William Safire at the New York Times or go to my friend Jacob Grier's weblog here and search for the opinions.

That's all for now. Read. Get happy. Get angry. Register to vote. Leave comments. Peace.