Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Why I support equal rights for gays

This blog could probably be titled "Why I Really Support Equal Rights for Gays" because that's the significant story.

I'm not gay.  I offer that statement as context, not as a protest.  If I were gay, I'd like to think I wouldn't be ashamed to admit it, but I might be.  There's really no way of knowing.  But I'm just not wired that way.

And there's nobody in my immediate family who's gay, insofar as I'm aware.  If there were, that person would receive my love and support, and our family would accept that person as he or she is.

I do have a handful of gay friends.  Some of them are publicly "out."  Some of them are not.  But I expect that most people have some gay friends, even if they don't know it.  I think it's possible to have gay friends and nevertheless oppose equal rights for gays.

With the exception I'll get to in a moment, there's really not much in my personal world to prompt me to support gay rights.

But I do.

On some level, what activates my sense of justice with respect to equal rights for gays is just that:  I happen to believe that everybody deserves not just nominally equal rights, but actually functional equal rights.  Take gay marriage, for example.  Everyone is, in some sense, under the same set of restrictions regarding same-sex marriage.  It just doesn't matter to heterosexuals, while it means the whole world to homosexuals. 

So I would be in favor of things like marriage equality even if I didn't have a personal reason to be.

But I do.

I met my college roommate the summer before our senior year of high school, at a six-week residential educational enrichment program.  He and I were fast friends, sharing a common interest in math and having similar politics. When we both ended up at the same university, we arranged to room together for our freshman year.

Living in close quarters with a person, you learn a lot about them. My roommate gave the impression of being essentially asexual. He never dated anyone as far as I could tell, nor did he give the impression that he wanted to.  He was a serious student.

After our freshman year, we both had the opportunity to live in single rooms, so for our sophomore year, we lived in the same dormitory but not in the same room. One evening before the fall term began, my friend was over for a visit.  And he chose that time to come out to me as gay.

At that point in our lives, he was probably my best friend. I don't know that I was his, but he apparently believed I was a good enough friend that I would support him and accept him for who he was.

I blew it. Oh, I pretended that it didn't bother me. On some level, it really didn't bother me. But I was worried about what other people would think about me, that I had chosen to live in close quarters with a gay man.  "If that's the way you are, it's fine by me," I said.  He looked relieved, and if I had just shut my mouth at that point I might have gotten away with it.  But I kept talking.

"Of course," I said, "if anyone asks, I'll have to say that I didn't find out about it until after we quit being roommates."

I wish my 37-year-old self could go back in time and convince my 18-year-old self not to say that. It might be the most hurtful thing I've ever said to someone.  I would give almost anything to un-say that.

To his credit, my friend laughed it off.  But things were never the same between us.  We drifted apart. I haven't spoken to him in probably 15 years.  And I don't blame him for that. It's my fault, and there is nothing I can do to make it up to him, for not being there 100% for him, as a friend, when he needed me to be.

Sadly, I think my reaction at the time was a perfectly normal one, given the mores of the time.  In the last 20 years, my attitude has changed a lot.  I no longer care what people think about me. I would not be embarrassed today for someone to believe I was gay, or somehow to think less of me because I'd had a gay roommate.  But most people do care what people think about them, and I would like to see the world treat homophobia, not homosexuality, as the defect, so that the normal reaction of someone in my position would be properly directed.

I am convinced that legal acceptance of homosexuality as a normal form of human sexuality, and the mainstreaming of homosexual relationships as acceptable on a legal basis, will lead to widespread societal acceptance of homosexuals.  I think we are already well down that road.  We now have experience with marriage equality on a limited basis, and the fact that the world didn't end has caused people to begin to realize that the old way of doing things just isn't necessary, and it's purposefully hurtful to people.

I hate that I hurt my friend because I wasn't strong enough to overcome what I perceived as his sexuality's social impact on me. But it gives me a special reason to stand up publicly for equal rights. If we can change the way we think about homosexuality, then maybe it wouldn't be such a big thing to accept our gay friends and family members for who they are.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Things I do not understand

The popularity of viral copycat videos (see, e.g., Harlem Shake).

The single-minded focus of Arkansas legislators on abortion restrictions.

Anyone over the age of 15 who seeks autographs from famous persons.

Hotels that charge $12.95 per day for access to the Internet.

The keeping of birds as "pets."

Airline pilots who speak inaudibly over the intercom.

Monday, February 18, 2013

So, it's been a little while

I realized a few minutes ago that it's been 14 days, two whole weeks, since my last entry.  I've been pretty busy with (a) the worst cold I've ever had, which put me in bed for five days, (b) getting ready for several trials that were all scheduled for the same week, and (c) taking what might have been the worst vacation I've ever taken.

Oh, and a close friend of mine died suddenly and very unexpectedly.  (The wound is still pretty raw on that right now, so I will save blogging about it for later.)

So this blog hasn't been the first thing, or even the 20th thing, on my list lately.

But I wanted to write a few words about habits, because I am trying to make this particular activity habitual.  Part of my personality is that I tend to form bad habits easily, particularly when they aren't really good for me but when they produce some sort of stimulative reward.  It's much harder to break bad habits, and it's even harder to form good ones.

The recent example that has been on my mind lately is the amount of time I waste with trivial activities on the Internet.  I'm habitually checking Facebook and a handful of other sites that I frequent.  I tell myself it's necessary, or at least helpful, by providing me with periodic distractions that prevent overfocus.  I have been blessed or cursed, take your pick, with the ability to concentrate on a task for a long period of time and produce high quality material in a concentrated burst of perhaps two, three, four, or more hours.  I first noticed this when I was a young lawyer. 

A big part of my first job out of law school involved taking German patent applications that had been roughly translated and transforming them into proper U.S. applications so that they could be filed in the U.S. for our German client.  I was expected to spend perhaps 15 or 20 hours per application, but I found that by shutting my office door and writing continuously, I could produce the necessary quality in maybe 3 or 4 hours.

My bosses complained, perhaps jokingly, that I was too efficient.  "OK, I'll work slower," I said.  But it was a constant struggle to slow down.  In fact, I'm convinced that my work product suffered when I did not apply full focus and finish quickly.  It's a terrible quandary...when you bill for your time, and you don't need to spend much time on things to get them better than they need to be, it's a recipe either for padding the bills or selling your work for less money than it's worth.

My answer was to confine my work to short bursts of perhaps 15 minutes in length.  I developed a habit wherein I would reward myself with 15 minutes of slacking in return.  That's a bad habit, of course.  And it's been very difficult for me to break.  It usually takes something like abject fear of failure to force me to close the browser and keep going with the real work.

I suppose what's got me in this line of thinking is that it is the Christian season of Lent.  I have never observed Lent; I grew up Presbyterian, and while we marked Lent on the liturgical calendar, it was never stressed to me that Lent should be a time of personal sacrifice.

Of course, today, as a Freethinker (more on that in a future post, too), I don't observe Lent, just as I don't celebrate Purim or the Solstice or anything else of a religious nature.  But apart from its religious connotations, I do think that Lent serves--for Christians--a purpose that everyone can benefit from.  At their heart, the sacrifices of Lent, which are meant to prepare Christians in body and mind for the sacrifice that Christ made on the Cross, are really about introspection, self-awareness, and self-improvement.  We all could use some of that.

I have come in recent years to view human behavior in terms of its evolutionary significance.  What separates humans from lesser animals is that we can intellectually understand the benefits and costs of our group social behaviors and modify ourselves accordingly.  Our human society is successful because at times we recognize that subjugating our base desires and instincts to a purpose greater than ourselves can have personal advantages that outweigh the gains of selfish behavior.  (Not to put too fine a point on it, but one of the things that separates us from the other animals is that we're at least capable of recognizing the damage that a philosophy like, for example, Ayn Rand's Objectivism can do to our societal success on an evolutionary level.)  Critical introspection makes us better at recognizing the whole of the advantages of self-sacrifice. 

So, while we don't need Lent as an excuse, it's certainly not a bad excuse, and if my Christian friends want to observe it, I think that's a good thing. But it doesn't need to be a formal thing, and it certainly doesn't need to involve giving something up just in the name of sacrifices.

Monday, February 4, 2013

There is something wrong with some of you people

I plan to write more on this topic in the future, but I ran across an article or a report or a blog entry somewhere over the weekend that stimulated me to a thought, mostly about the headline.  The original headline was "There is something wrong with you people" but I decided that was unfair because it's not everybody, just some of you.  Anyway, a lot of stuff crosses my desk. This was a report from North Dakota about its implementation of the TANF program.

TANF stands for "Temporary Assistance to Needy Families."  TANF used to be called AFDC, or Aid to Families with Dependent Children.  Before that it was AFC, or Aid to Families with Children, which I guess they thought was too loosely defined.  TANF is a cash payment that can be used to buy anything. 

And in that respect, TANF differs from food stamps and WIC, which provide direct but restricted food assistance, and from HUD's Section 8 program, which provides money for housing payments.

But TANF is welfare.

I am lucky not to have any real experience with these programs.  It would be unfair for me to say that this is because I have always been able to provide for myself.  Certainly, when I was a child, it was not true.  But more generally, the way I look at it, I'm lucky to have skills that are in demand from people who have the money to pay me for them.  Not everybody is that lucky.

Whatever it was I was reading, which you could probably find via Google which you can find linked from here, said that around 48% of TANF benefits in North Dakota were spent on items that could be described as "luxuries"--mainly eating out, movie rentals, junk food, and other similar items that aren't strictly necessary for a subsistence level of living, plus ATM withdrawals that could be spent on anything.  The point of the article, I suppose, was to illustrate that money could be saved by cutting TANF payments, if they are just going to be spent on luxuries.

If this were a different sort of blog, you might expect to hear me clamor for a cut in these benefits. But I'm me, and if your reaction is that we need to cut TANF, then I am writing primarily to let you know that there is something wrong with you.  (Sneak preview:  You either don't have or don't have enough empathy, which makes you less of a human being. I recognize that this is a controversial position I'm taking, but it is the result of 20 years of observations.)

Here are a few facts I'd like you to keep in mind:

1. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, which comes to $15,080 per year if you are lucky enough to get 40 hours a week. A lot of people don't get that much.

2. Cars are expensive to own and operate, so a lot of poor people don't. Instead, they rely on public transportation, mainly buses, that are less expensive than cars but lack a lot of the advantages that cars offer, namely almost no control over when and where you are going.

3. The nominal unemployment rate is currently about 7.9%, but somewhere between 20 and 25 million people are involuntarily out of work or underemployed.

4. TANF generally requires that recipients work or obtain job training as a condition for receiving benefits.

If you are expecting to live a luxurious life on TANF benefits, you are going to have to look elsewhere.  According to a report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, no state offers a TANF benefit that is more than 50% of the poverty line.  In most states, it's less than 30%.  Across the South, including Arkansas, it's less than 20%.

Put another way, a TANF recipient in Arkansas would have to receive or earn five times what they get in TANF benefits just to be considered poor even by Arkansas standards.

I'm all in favor of teaching a man to fish, but while you're teaching him to fish, he still needs to eat.  More importantly, so do his kids.

But, even more than that, I think that most people don't have a real appreciation for how difficult it is to live on a low income, or just how much work it is to make decisions about how to put food on the table when you don't have much by way of resources.  I am dead-on certain that most people don't view eating at McDonald's as a luxury by any definition of the term.

If you can look at these facts and say that the problem with TANF is that it's just too generous, then there is something wrong with you.