Monday, May 28, 2007

The Onion Had It Right

"Massachusetts Supreme Court Orders All Citizens to Gay Marry," went the satirical Onion headline (in The Onion, the punchline always comes first). But if "gay marriage" is the current reading of "civil unions," The Onion may be on to something. I start with the premise that the government has as little business as possible in my domestic arrangements, love life, and so forth. As proponents of "traditional" (read: gay-excluding) marriage like to point out, marriage is supposed to be a sacred trust, and government has no business delineating what is sacred and what is not.

Why, then, ought we to tolerate any secular laws regarding marriage at all? There are important reasons, the most important being the adjudication of child welfare and custody, care of the elderly and disabled and visitation rights, and settlement of probate (property, payments, inheritance) in the event of death, divorce, or abandonment. Innocents need protection and money matters need formal procedures, in short. Establishing formal civil status is necessary for people who share dependents or property. Civil union is the right phrase for this arrangement. Note that many couples could benefit from civil unions: elderly siblings who share a house, say, or otherwise unrelated parents of a "love child." I see no reason why civil union could not be undertaken by groups of people larger than two, for that matter.

As for love, marriage, family, romance, sex: the government has no business in any of that. These are matters for individuals, families, churches. Jesse Jackson once pointed out that we can no more coerce someone not to pray in the schools than we can force them to pray: prayer is private and personal, a part of our thoughts and sentiments, not our public actions. It simply cannot be legislated one way or the other. Marriage is like that. Passing laws forbidding people to be married is like passing laws requiring people to belong to a religious faith (the Spanish Inquisition was one large-scale attempt; their enforcement history is instructive).

The irony here is that it is precisely the sacred, inviolate character of marriage, that aspect that causes uneasy intuitions about gay marriage in some traditionally-minded folks, that makes gay marriage (literally) impossible to prohibit. It's like trying to prohibit people from believing in God.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

What Immigration Problem?

Representative Artur Davis, a Democrat from Alabama and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, makes an important point about the current immigration debate. In a country with a relatively low unemployment rate, competition for jobs exacerbated by immigration is concentrated in the "low wage base." The low wage base is the bottom sector of the labor force, unskilled manual laborers. Rep. Davis, an African-American congressman from the South, points out that our low wage base is larger than it needs to be (although still not large enough or evenly distributed enough to fill, say, our migrant agricultural labor needs). Meanwhile we suffer from labor shortages in "higher" sectors of the labor force, those requiring technically trained workers. What is needed is more education, vocational and otherwise, for lower-income Americans. Someday we're going to understand what many other countries (notably the Asians) have long understood: that education is a public benefit as well as a private one.
Two more quick points about immigration. First, while it's true that the current situation (somewhere between 10 and 15 million people in the country with inadequate documentation) is no way to run things and ought to be reformed, it's not true that the problem of illegals has now somehow come to a crisis point for the nation's economy or security. The situation is nothing new, and in fact we need at least some millions of those workers to make up for unskilled labor shortages in agriculture, construction, services and other industries. What is happening right now is that we are in a contentious election cycle, one where the right has good reason to worry about the outcome. The immigration debate has been cranked up once again as a lightening-rod issue to galvanize the right-wing populist vote, much as the gay marriage issue is also brought to the fore not by gay rights liberals, but by their opponents.
Which brings me to the second point. We humans are territorial, defensive around strangers and worried to protect our families and property. It's easy to demagogue an issue like immigration, much as the Republicans demagogue the "terrorism" issue. We are a country of 300 million people with an unemployment rate hovering around four to six percent (six percent we consider bad). In other moods, conservatives are quick to point out that the economy is doing well. So I ask again: what immigration problem?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Is Al-Queda Good for Israel?

Today I'm wondering about this argument: Islamic militancy is a gift to Israel, because Israel is put in the position of a bulwark against an apocalyptic, nihilistic menace. With increasing civil conflict around Muslim assimilation in Europe, and signs of an anti-militant backlash developing in the Arab world, Israel may come to have a new diplomatic pass from quarters that have spurned it for decades. Like the by-the-numbers diplomacy of the Cold War era, Middle East diplomacy is becoming formulaic. It turns out that not all suicide bombers are the same: if the cause is global religious totalitarianism, sympathy will be in short supply. This week we're hearing that Al-Queda is now making a push to establish operations in Palestine, while the jihadis are out-gunning the Lebanese Army in that country.
All of this appears to play into a well-established strategy of the Israelis. They have always sought to undermine the development of effective Palestinian government and security. Since the days of Begin, and epitomized by Sharon, Likud strategy has been to forestall and prevent the emergence of a credible Palestinian state. Now the policy is paying off as the vacuum is filled with an enemy that justifies the most aggressive militancy, including perpetual occupation.
Israel must face up to its own responsibility for the radicalization of Arab politics. It may be that the path of aggression will pay off, the Arab masses will turn against Islamic fundamentalism and militancy, and peace with acceptance of Israel will be secured. But I'm skeptical. Sectarian conflict is all about individual choice. Amazingly enough, we humans often choose to live in a state of perpetual war. That is the path that Israel has taken. To leave that path will require fairly radical changes, and those changes get harder and harder to make as the Arab world becomes more and more alienated, more and more reactionary. Today, Israelis can go one of two ways: they can say, "Look at these radical Islamists, and don't blame us for living by the sword," ignoring their own role in the evolution of the situation, or they can stop digging the hole.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Rudy's Experiment

Rudy Giuliani is mystifying the pundocracy with his high poll numbers among conservative voters. The mystery is about how anyone who is pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and pro-gun control can possibly achieve this. Here's the solution to the mystery: it's all about the war. Giuliani's is a high-concept campaign, very strictly modelled on the Bush-Cheney campaign of 2004. There is one issue, tagged "national security" but more accurately called "scaring the daylights out of people." The procedure is pure Giuliani, that is, the original Giuliani, the head-cracking tough guy New Yorkers knew before 9/11. If you elect the Democrats, the terrorists are going to come and kill you and your family. If you elect the Democrats, they won't do anything, and the terrorists will detonate bombs in the cities. This was Cheney's role in 2004. It takes a lot of brass, demagogic blood libel against your opponents that it is. An absence of shame is necessary. And who responds to this? The Republican hard-core, the base that is now the only pro-war constituency. And, with them, it still works. Mystery solved.
Meanwhile, I do have to hand it to Giuliani that he has not waffled a bit on the social issues, even lately with the pressure on. At this point that's turned into something interesting and even admirable. How far can he go? Answer: Not as far as the Republican nomination. And were he to get the nomination, a half-a-Democrat on social issues and a pro-war candidate in an anti-war nation, he'd get shellacked. But it's not going to happen.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Romney Question

I'm still a little skeptical about Mitt Romney's campaign for the GOP nomination. The pro-Romney buzz is that he's been campaigning well, and he's launched an early air war with his "I love to veto" spot in heavy rotation on cable. But I don't think he comes across very well, he seems inauthentic and may be that rare primary candidate who is actually too good-looking (read "packaged"). Still, at the moment he's at least one of the top three or four GOP hopefuls, and this past week Al Sharpton faced down accusations of being prejudiced against Mormons, so a bit of discussion is in order. Today I'm thinking about his father, George Romney, and also about the race issue for the Mormon church.
First, I think one has to put his religion in the perspective of his family. His father George was chairman of the American Motors Company, an auto industry hotshot back in the glory days. He went on to be the moderate Republican Governor of Michigan from 1963 to 1969. What that tells us is that the Romneys are sophisticated, worldly people, from Detroit, not from Moab, with lives lived in the society of America's corporate and political elite. Any suggestion that they are religious fanatics or cultists, or whatever it is that Mormons are supposed to be by their detractors, is spurious.
Then there are the specifics of George's political career. He ran as a moderate choice for the GOP presidential nomination in 1968, and opposed the war in Vietnam. In fact, that campaign foundered partially because of his gaffe of using the word "brainwashed" to describe his experience visiting Vietnam in 1967, which enabled the hawks to pillory him with the party faithful. Later President Nixon made him HUD secretary, in which post he tried, unsuccessfully, to expand the federal housing program. This family history distinguishes the son from the hard-right fundamentalist crowd, mostly Southern, that is the usual faction of the GOP identified with religion. In fact many of those conservatives, Baptists and Southern Methodists, villify Mormons. Romney is "identified with religion" only because Mormon national candidates are unusual, not because he himself makes a big deal about it.
He does make a bit of a deal out of it, though, when he says he'd like to be for Mormons what JFK was for Catholics in 1960. This brings me back to the Sharpton flap (Rev. Al seems to be turning up in my posts a lot for some reason). I don't think it's fair to jump on a black leader for criticizing the Mormon Church. I understand that today's Mormons aren't a bunch of white supremacist racists, but churches have histories and these histories need to be discussed. People don't get baited as anti-Catholic bigots for questioning, say, the actions of the Vatican during WW II, or the church's history in Latin America, or its policies regarding women in the priesthood and otherwise. If Mitt Romney wants to be the Mormon JFK, a discussion of the Mormon Church's past is, in fact, a necessary part of that process.
It's a judgement call whether there is overtly racist material in early Mormon scripture. However, Mormons were forced to take racial (and racist) positions to deal with political problems during their westward migration in the nineteenth century. In the border state of Missouri the Mormon Church banned blacks to allay the fears of pro-slavery neighbors and allies; it was during this period that the "Curse of Ham" nonsense was cooked up to ban blacks from the church, later from the priesthood, and even from heaven. Later, tensions with native Americans in the far west reinforced white supremacist doctrine.
All very regrettable, but in the USA we don't live in the past. At least not that far back in the past. However, a more difficult fact is that it was not until 1978, less than thirty years ago, that a new "revelation" conveniently allowed blacks into the priesthood of this aggressively evangelizing church. This is the history that exercises critics like Rev. Sharpton. Jumping on him for hypocrisy won't cut it: I don't think Mormons are anything other than another type of Christian, but there will have to be a public discussion of the racist past of the church if Mormon politicians hope to thrive as national candidates.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Political Fruit of Irish Prosperity

"The Troubles" of Northern Ireland have long been based in the poorest sectors of that community. The walled-off enclaves of Catholics and Protestants are the meanest ghettos of Belfast and Derry. Meanwhile, in the (even slightly) more affluent suburbs and gentrified neighborhoods, most people in Northern Ireland live and work side by side without much thought to who is Catholic and who is Protestant. For that matter, leftish Protestants will advocate a united Irish Republic, while conservative Catholics can be found who will support continued union with Britain. What happened yesterday, when home rule returned to Northern Ireland for the first time since 2002, is another step in a process that has been moving along for a long time.
That process is much more economic than political. When Ian Paisley, the Protestant Unionist leader, said yesterday that "I believe we are starting on a road to bring us back to peace and prosperity," he's not got it exactly right. First of all, there's never been peace and prosperity in hundreds of years, ever since the English first invaded the place in the twelth century. Ireland's is the sad history of a too-weak country with a too-strong neighbor. But more importantly, the political deal-making of Mr. Paisley and Mr. Adams is not the road to Irish prosperity. It is Irish prosperity that is forcing the hard men to come out from under their rocks once and for all. Like all sectarian conflicts, nominally nationalist, religious, or what-have-you, Ireland's troubles have always been fueled by economic hardship. The fight in Northern Ireland was about who got a slice of a very meager pie. Today most people in Ireland are doing better than they ever have. Anybody who owns real estate is about a third again richer than they were just a few years ago, and the market continues to rise; there aren't enough workers for all of the work, and the main social tension in Ireland today is over immigrants from Africa and elsewhere.
Where does it all lead? To a united Ireland under the government in Dublin. The Protestants of Northern Ireland are no longer in any real danger of losing anything with reunification, which is also in the best interests of the UK. It will take a while longer. It is being accomplished by powerful economic forces, beyond anyone's control.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Darwin and the Conservatives

The topic of evolution leads us right to the most basic split in the Republican Party. We're talking basic metaphysics of ideology: do you think that the universe is organized from the bottom up, or from the top down? Christians and Marxists (close cousins whose grandfather is named Plato) aim for a society where everything is organized according to a transcendent, master plan. Augustine's City of God and Marx's Communist Manifesto are examples of the genre. Darwin was reading a different economist, however: Adam Smith, who argued in his Wealth of Nations (1776) that micro events at the level of autonomous, self-interested individuals eventually added up to efficient macro economies, governed by market forces (another example of this genre is John Stuart Mill, see On Liberty). This is the liberal (small "l") tradition of empiricism, the granddaddy of which is David Hume. Darwin simply applied this logic to biology, where the phenomenon of speciation had been observed for some time (gradual change noticed first by the geologists), but no mechanism had been observed to explain the emergence of organization.
If you're a conservative Republican reading this (not that any probably are), the question is absolutely basic: are you a free-market, small-government voter, or are you a Christian voter? Because it's one or the other, folks.
While I'm at it, what about that argument for intelligent design? Here's the problem: You said that a formally-organized thing (in this case, the world) must have a designer. So you concluded that the designing God exists. Where does the formally-organized God come from? It was you yourself who insisted that a formally-organized entity needed an explanation. You've explained nothing. That's an argument from David Hume (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion). Check him out! He'll make a better conservative out of you.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Thompson Bubble

Fred Thompson is a fairly good candidate for national office, in a league with, say, John Edwards: one undistinguished term in the Senate, and a regular presence on some crime shows on TV, he looks the part (as everyone points out) and has a consistent conservative take on the issues (can you think of an issue on which his position stands out from the crowd?). My take is not that he's a bad candidate for the GOP nomination, just that he's an average one. So what is the moral of the story? That is that the Thompson bubble reflects the wide-open state of the Republican race. His camp should be worried about the comparisons to Reagan. The last pseudoReagan was George Allen. All you can do is fall off the pedestal; run away from that hype as fast as possible. I also think that the here today, gone tomorrow dynamic in both parties' races reflects the absurdity of trying to pick the president a year and a half before we're going to pick the president. There's too little to lose.
Meanwhile the above-mentioned vacuum might yet help John McCain. A big difference between McCain 2008 and, say, Gore 2004 is that the media loves McCain (while inexplicably loathing Al Gore), and they will run to assist as soon as his campaign shows signs of revival. It is also true that yet more candidates may and probably will emerge. I think Newt Gingrich is going to run, for example. But with this pathologically elongated election season ("season"? This is a lifestyle!), this all rises to approximately the level of baseball trivia at this point.
PS Is "media" here a singular or plural noun? What does Safire say?

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Batterer Always Claims to be the Victim

Can I just register my disgust with the current discussion of "benchmarks" for the Iraqi government? It's all the fault of these feckless natives, is that it? We need to be stern, like good parents, with our wayward allies? Let them suffer the consequences of failing to do...what? Resolve these ancient sectarian conflicts, now that we've torn off the scab? Oh, the response goes, but it was good to depose the murderous dictator. Alright: good enough for the Iraqis to pay this cost? To say nothing of the cost to us. Blaming the Iraqi government for failing to administer a peaceful and functioning Iraq is a seductive way to avoid the guilt that we as a nation have for the current situation in Iraq, simple as that. It's an excuse to withdraw for people who don't want to admit that the invasion was a mistake. It's a rationalization for leaving these people to their fate after we trashed their security situation.