Monday, April 26, 2010

You Know You've Crossed The Line When...

...even Tom Tancredo thinks your new anti-immigration law went too far.

This Week in the First Amendment

Lots of free speech/religious freedom-related stories in the past few days. I'll try to give you a run-down, but this post will probably go long so bear with me.

The first, and most famous, story is that South Park had a censored image of Muhammad shown as part of their 200th episode celebration. Trey Parker and Matt Stone (who appears to have lost his 'fro) claim that Comedy Central censored them against their will after they received death threats from some nebulous New York-based group called "Revolution Muslim". Jon Stewart gives Revolution Muslim the treatment they deserve:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
South Park Death Threats
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

We can certainly all agree with Stewart that anyone who threatens death for a little offense deserves to be hauled before the "Go Fuck Yourselves" choir. But I'm not too concerned with Revolution Muslim - chances are, "Revolution Muslim" is some lazy twenty-something living in his parents' basement in Queens who jacks off while playing the terrorists in Counter Strike. (Update: Apparently the "group's" founder is a former Jewish settler in Gaza who converted to Islam and apparently lost none of the fanaticism required to be a settler. He's a 40-year-old cab driver, so I got that wrong. I still stand by my jacking-off-to-being-a-computer-terrorist conjecture though.) And "Revolution Muslim" is far from the only nutter-butter out there - Greenwald points out that Fort Worth's Artes de la Rosa theater rejected a play with a gay Jesus character after being threatened by e-mail, and that the original producers of the same play received similar threats in New York in 1998.

What's more concerning here is the cowardly, inexcusable actions of Comedy Central. It was clear from the start that Parker and Stone could give a fuck about whether someone threatened them. Hell, they probably receive a death threat or two a month as it is. But by censoring Parker and Stone, Comedy Central and parent company Viacom did more damage than any idiot with a website and an e-mail account could ever hope to do. They've sent a clear message - threats work, no matter how obviously idle. (Same goes for you, Artes de la Rosa Theater.) As Art Aleksakis might say, they can't hurt you unless you let them. Comedy Central's despicable actions just let them hurt us.

Our second issue has to do with a fascinating Supreme Court case called U.S. v. Stevens. In it, the Court, by an 8-1 margin (Alito was the lone dissenter), struck down as overly broad a federal law banning depictions of animal cruelty. The material intended to be outlawed was that in which a woman's high-heel shoes crushes an animal for sexual pleasure. Or something equally disturbing and bizarre. The problem with the law wasn't the outlawing of such videos per se, but that the law was so broad that it potentially banned hunting shows - Stevens, in fact, was convicted of distributing a video portraying a dog fight.

My first thought is that this only goes to prove Rule 34: if you can imagine it, there is porn of it on the Internet. My second thought is that this is a weird First Amendment case. We're perfectly okay with laws banning depictions of completely disturbing acts such as child pornography, but we know that we can't ban everything that disturbs us. So where's the line? Solicitor General (and hopefully-not-future-associate-justice) Elena Kagan argued that free speech rights should be balanced against the social cost of such rights. Civil libertarians and anyone who cares about the Constitution are rightly repulsed by that argument, but why? Don't we already do that to some extent?

I'd argue, though, that the point of child porn laws is not to outlaw the depiction but the act itself, which would not exist beyond the depiction. The video distributer is ultimately responsible for the illegal act occurring, and so should be prosecuted. A constitutional law banning depictions of animal cruelty, then, would punish video distributers for animal cruelty that occurred solely because of the video - that is, an act of cruelty staged for the camera. Someone filming a dogfight and then selling the video couldn't be prosecuted unless they themselves staged the fight with the intent of making money off the video. But even that standard can easily go too far - we'd be disturbed by the idea that teenagers who make a video of themselves vandalizing mailboxes should have that video banned.

Anyway, it's a fascinating issue, and I'd like the input of some of the lawyers who read this blog.

A little bit more cut-and-dry, however, is the recent decision by Judge Barbara Crabb declaring the federal statute establishing a National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. For this ruling, Crabb is taking crap from everyone from Tony Perkins to Barack Obama - this despite the fact that Crabb is very obviously correct. If you looked up "an establishment of religion" in the dictionary, you'd see a picture of a law declaring a National Day of Prayer beside the definition. The law is blatantly establishing religion. Which is unconstitutional. It really is that simple. There's absolutely no way to get around that. It doesn't matter how much of a tradition it is, it doesn't matter who endorsed the idea, and I could give a damn whether it's a good idea or not. It's unconstitutional and it needs to go, end of story. The boundaries aren't there to be ignored at will, people. The ruling from Crabb was 66 pages - it didn't need 66 words.

Of course, the usual suspects have launched their unhinged opposition to the ruling. The head of the "National Day of Prayer Task Force," Shirley Dobson (originally named as a defendant in the suit but dropped - the suit is now against Obama) reacted with predictable hyperbole:
This is a concerted effort by a small but determined number of people who have tried to prohibit all references to the Creator in the public square, whether it be the Ten Commandments, the Pledge of Allegiance, or the simple act of corporate prayer -- this is unconscionable for a free society.


Long term, this type of opinion, if not corrected on appeal, will continue the erosion of our religious heritage and freedom.

Prohibiting references to God in the public square? Eroding religious freedom? Mrs. Dobson, I believe you deserve the Mandy Patinkin treatment:

Let's be clear. This court ruling does not preclude Americans from setting aside a day - or a week, or a month, or a year - to pray. It does not prevent the President or members of Congress from announcing during a speech that they're holding a National Day of Prayer. It does not stop the President or Congresscritters or anyone with the spirit in them from getting up on the floor of the house and screaming "GOD GOD GOD" at the top of their lungs. No one will be forced to stop praying because of this court case. No one will be forced to stop praying loudly because of this court case. To claim that preventing the government from declaring a national day of prayer erodes religious liberty is to display massive ignorance about the Constitution and about the idea of religious liberty.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Oh well. At least there are still 49 states where it's legal to not have your passport on you when you leave the house. Of course, I don't look Hispanic, so I'm not going to get stopped, but still.

Dear Congress: Take up immigration reform. NOW.

(Oh, and when you do, please try to simplify things, okay? Our system is already Byzantine and capricious enough.)

(Also this: Hispanics in Arizona have been generally more Republican than the national average. Wonder how that's going to change...)

This song seemed appropriate...

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Out in the Cole

A couple of years ago I ranted about Arkansas' awful Act 1, which forbade gay and straight unmarried couples, as well as single people, from adopting children. I argued that it was a hollow gay-bashing measure that would lead to more kids ending up in foster care with no discernible benefit to anyone except moralizers without souls.

A Circuit Court judge apparently had a similar reaction to the law. Think Progress reports that it was struck down in court today. The Arkansas News has more. The case is Cole v. Arkansas, and I'll post the decision once I find it online. Should it go to the full 8th Circuit, it'll be Arkansas v. Cole.

The judge ruled that the law ran afoul of two Constitutional principles. One, it violated the right to privacy of the adopting couples by placing an undue burden on the private relationship between two individuals. Two, it violated the couples' right to equal protection by denying them a right to adopt children that is granted freely to other couples. The law, on its face, only prevents couples who do not possess a certain legal status (marriage) from adopting, but because some couples (same-sex ones) are not allowed to possess that legal status, the right to adopt is essentially permanently denied same-sex couples while opposite-sex couples will be allowed to adopt should they choose to do so. The right to adopt, then, has been denied to certain couples while granted to other couples, and on a basis wholly unrelated to the welfare of the child. It's pretty easy to see how that's an equal protection violation.

First off, in the wake of Heller and Citizens United, and in light of the health care reform lawsuits being staged by thirteen-plus states, I don't want to hear any whining from conservatives about "judicial activism" or "overturning the will of the people." The Constitution says what it says, and the majority doesn't have the right to ignore the Constitution if they find its wording inconvenient. I don't give a damn how popular a law is, if it violates the Constitution then it ought to be thrown out. Anyone who doesn't understand this basic principle should have their registration revoked because they're too damn stupid to vote.

Second, Arkansas, should this case stand (which I doubt it will, honestly) has a couple of possible courses of action here. One, they can allow same-sex couples to marry. That gets around the equal-protection issues by offering adoption to all couples predicated upon reaching a certain legal status that is open to all. Two, they can re-instate the right to adopt to all couples, regardless of marital status.

But think for a moment of the logic here. You can't deny a state benefit to a couple if you grant that benefit to other couples, and the nature of one's private relationship is not a reason to deny that benefit. In this case, the benefit is the ability to adopt a child, but there are tons of other benefits that Arkansas and other states bestow exclusively on married couples. Of all these benefits, adoption is probably the most restrictable because it involves a third party (the child) whose welfare is paramount. Other benefits, such as the right to file taxes jointly and the right to survivor benefits, do not involve a third party. So if we rule that the right to adoption must be bestowed equally on all couples, that implies that pretty much every other benefit offered to married couples must be offered to all couples. Thus, either the legal status of marriage must be open to all couples, or all these benefits must be the result of obtaining a separate legal status that is open to all couples (such as a civil union).

That's why you'll be hearing lots more about this case in the coming months. Essentially, should it stand, all states will be Constitutionally required to offer same-sex civil unions with all the benefits of marriage. That Constitution can be a bitch sometimes, can't it, wingnuts?

(One final note - it's far from clear to me that Arkansas will appeal this decision. The current governor, Mike Beebe, is none too fond of Act 1, so he might just quit enforcement and ask the law to be changed.)

Friday, April 16, 2010

You, On The Wagon, Now

This is news to me: seems like the U.K. government has taken for itself the right to ban someone from going into any bar in the country for two years.

Bizarre punishments are nothing new, of course, but here's the part that gets my goat: the punishment appears to be handed out for specious reasons:
So what exactly did Hall do? The report doesn't specify, saying only that she has been convicted of "a series of public order offenses," and had flouted bans from individual bars and clubs in her hometown.

So basically, the British government can issue this ban essentially on the grounds of "we just kinda feel like it." The BBC article on the new legislation allowing courts to mete out this punishment is not comforting:
People in England and Wales who commit crimes or behave anti-socially while drunk could now face a Drinking Banning Order - or "booze Asbo".

Under powers coming into force on Monday, police and councils can seek an order on anyone aged 16 and over.

"Behave anti-socially?" What the fuck does that even mean? I guess it means something different in England than it does here, because here it means hiding from everyone. People who Americans consider "anti-social" wouldn't need to be banned from bars - they wouldn't be in bars in the first place, because they wouldn't ever leave home. So considering that the phrase "anti-social" has a somewhat fungible meaning, that's basically a license for government officials to control your going-out behavior for whatever reason they see fit. That's a power that'll never be abused, of course.

So yeah, I'm not moving to England anytime soon.

Update: Meanwhile, back here at home, Congress is trying to prevent an "epidemic of alcohol" from descending upon you by... limiting direct sales of wine from wineries. Because if I wanted to binge-drink, the first thing I'd think of doing is ordering specialty wine through the fucking mail.

(Of course, it's not government's business if I did want to binge drink. Just saying. Hat tip: Jacob's Twitter feed.)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Get Your Share

I'm not a big believer in karma, but if you happen to be one, you sure had a good couple of weeks. Here are a couple good karma stories for you.

We'll start with David Frum. The blogosphere has been alight over David Frum's recent defenestration from the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Frum was fired for making a few comments disparaging Republican tactics on health care reform - specifically, the decision by Republicans to simply oppose the legislation rather than to try to remake it in a conservative image. Frum thinks, with good reason, that the Republicans not only missed an opportunity to get some pieces of conservative health care reform enacted but also that Republicans took a big PR hit as a result of their obstructionism.

While I'm sympathetic to Frum's plight - seems like the absolute last thing a think-tank should do is fire someone for putting out a contrarian viewpoint - there's some poetic justice here. Seems like Frum, back when he was fresh off his job as Bush II's speechwriter, put out this article condemning Republicans and conservatives who disagreed with Bush's approach to the "War on Terror." He ends the article, "Now we turn our backs on them."

Seems to me that Bush's terrorism policy was the beginning of movement conservatives seeing the world in an "us vs. them" light, where if you don't hew to the orthodox position you're with the enemy and thus should be exiled. Frum was right there at the forefront kicking out dissenting voices, and now the monster he helped create has turned on him. Karma.

The other victim of karma this week? Pope Benedict.

Seems His Eminence, back when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was personally involved in a cover-up of a child abuse scandal in California in 1985. He refused to allow the diocese of Oakland to fire the priest even though he had previously been convicted of child sexual abuse by American courts. There are several other cases where the future Pope's office tried to cover up sexually abusive priests, but none have Ratzinger/Benedict's fingerprints on it in quite the way that this does. In the letter linked to by the BBC story, Ratzinger says that the offending priest should not be fired quite yet because "the good of the universal Church" wasn't served by doing so.

Now there's no doubt in my mind that the erstwhile Cardinal and current Pope are horrified by priests sexually abusing children. Nor do I believe that he didn't take such allegations seriously - I mean, how could you not, especially when they concern someone who is supposed to be a direct conduit between a lay Catholic and God? Rather, Ratzinger's crime was hubris - he thought he could keep this whole thing under wraps and not have the Church take a PR hit for hiring someone who ended up being an abuser. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that an organization with a billion or so members in hundreds of countries worldwide isn't going to be able to cover something of this magnitude up for long, but Ratzinger thought so. And now it's blowing up in his face - bloggers I respect are calling for his arrest, for fuck's sake. We haven't seen a Pope in this much hot water since Alexander VI. And all because he, as a Cardinal, thought that he could keep the whole situation under wraps.

The sad irony here is that the Church would have been much better off had their leadership come clean from the very beginning. Indeed, had the Church leadership just fired the guy and cooperated with other investigations, they might have come out of this whole mess as the good guys who helped get the bad apples out of the bunch. After all, with the sheer amount of priests in the world, some of them are bound to be bad ones, right? You can't hold having bad priests against the Church. But defending such priests after the point of defensibility has long passed? Yeah, you can hold that one against them.

So maybe poetic justice is still alive and well. I'm not holding my breath though.

Update: Apparently the Pope's second-in-command is blaming the whole scandal on gayness. File this under "some people never learn."

Update II: I suppose it was only a matter of time before this happened too: an Italian bishop is now blaming the Jews for the Church's troubles. Some people sure love their whipping boys, eh? (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Friday, April 09, 2010

Stress Test

Here's a fun list for you. The Daily Beast ranked colleges by how stressful they are. My alma mater comes in 7th, ahead of Caltech and Cornell, so the list is clearly bullshit... but it's fun to play around with.

Smackdown of the Century

This article, about former adult film star Stormy Daniels' (real name: Stephanie Clifford) possible run for Senate in (where else) Louisiana, is full of win. Especially the part where she notes that she was a lifelong Democrat, but switched to the Republican party after some Republican higher-ups were caught using RNC funds in a bondage-themed strip club last week. She would be challenging the incumbent Republican Sen. David Vitter (though in LA's bizarre election system, Clifford would appear on the November ballot with both Melancon and Vitter, and a runoff would be held in December if none get a majority). Vitter, of course, has recently been involved in a prostitution scandal.

But the best line of the article is the last, and it's a response from presumptive Democratic nominee Charlie Melancon's campaign to accusations from Republicans that it's all a publicity stunt:
"If the Louisiana Republican Party is uncomfortable with a Republican challenger who has a history of selling sex, I would suggest they reconsider standing by an incumbent with a history of paying for it," Franck said in an e-mailed statement.


This Was Not Well Thought Out

OK, let me give it to you straight. You want to start a pharmacy based on Catholic values? Cool. Don't want to sell contraceptives or cigarettes or dirty magazines? Go for it. Contraceptives make up 10% of an average pharmacy's revenues, but you can make that up with a good business model.

But for heaven's sake, don't open your business in a young, relatively socially liberal area within a stone's throw of a bunch of other national-chain pharmacies, or you're gonna go broke.

I grew up about a mile from this store's Chantilly, VA location, and I'll vouch for a couple of things. Northern Virginia may be pretty heavily Christian, but it's not the Bible Belt either. People there don't care about these conservative-Christian issues the way people in more conservative bits of the country do. Hell, even the devout Christians at my high school tended to hate on the Falwell-Robertson crowd as much as I did. My point is that NoVans aren't gonna sacrifice convenience to patronize a Christian-themed business - they're just gonna swing by the CVS on the way back from the kids' soccer practice. So you have to rely on visibility and drop-in business, not just word of mouth. And with that in mind, the location is shit. It's tucked in a shopping center well out of view of both Route 50 and Centerville Road (the two main roads in that area). Unless you're going to the K-Mart next door, you're not going to just run into it... and what's more, there's a CVS with a much better location in that same shopping center, not to mention the other CVS about a mile up Centerville.

So if anyone wants to whine about how the failure of this business is proof of some liberal plot against Christians, or if anyone wants to gloat about how this proves Christian-themed pharmacies are doomed to fail, just keep in mind that this particular case isn't well-suited to drawing conclusions about the larger business model. You can't locate your business in an invisible location in a demographically unsuitable area and expect it to succeed. Somewhere else, such a pharmacy might succeed.