Monday, March 30, 2015

On deaf ears

I was born here, and reared here, and I stayed for college here.  For law school, I went elsewhere because of a unique and wonderful opportunity. From law school I went to work in a place that was as much like here as I could find and still have the opportunities that were otherwise available to me.

And almost three years ago, I came back here to live.  I am and always have been an Arkansan, and even when I lived elsewhere I have never considered myself anything but.

The Arkansas of my youth was different from today.  Our politicians were genuine statesmen and stateswomen, Fulbright and Clinton and Pryor (the elder) and Bumpers, and numerous others, who valued balance and progress and intelligence.  We knew we were poor, but we knew we could do better.  We had, some of us, lived through perilous, ugly times, when our eyes were blackened, and when ignorance and hatred had made us for some hick backwater.  But it seemed for a time that we had managed to put that behind us.

During my fifteen-year absence, something changed.  I'm not sure whether it was me or the prevailing tenor of our public discourse, informed as it now is by religion, not reason.  The truth is that before I left, I was political; before I left, even though I was nominally a Christian I was not guided in any of my positions by religious duty; and before I left, I don't remember any of my contemporaries being particularly driven by that, either.

Somewhere along the way, while most of my hometown contemporaries grew up, they became what I can only charitably describe as religious zealots, driven as never before by an apparently pathological need to be seen by others as the Right Kind of Christian.  I suppose I could have found that change tolerable if the philosophy they espoused looked anything like that of Jesus himself.  These folks, however, follow a bastard form of Christianity--one that is fueled by piety and purity and status and in some cases the "prosperity" gospel first popularized by Oral Roberts and taken to new heights by Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar, one that seeks to inject itself into the most private affairs of others and to use the law to punish those whose actions make them disfavored.

Incredibly, these people mark themselves as persecuted, even as they control all of the levers of state and local government and most of the levers of the federal government.

Much has been written about HB1228, a so-called "Religious Freedom Restoration Act."  There are many reasons why this legislation is not needed.  It will foster hatred of others.  It will cause us economic damage.  It will not make anyone more free and its absence will not make anyone less free.  It is this last aspect that I'd like to focus on.

 In one sense, I am in favor of legislation that respects the rights of individual Americans to make their own religious choices and to excuse them from the general application of a law when it would genuinely burden their sincere religious practices or beliefs.  In fact, I would appreciate some protections for my own religious choices, because my own religious beliefs, being in the minority in which they stand, are under virtually constant attack from the Christians who are pushing this legislation.

But not all ends of a means are equally justifiable.  Standing in context, HB1228 is not designed to meet the laudable goal of making Arkansans more free in the general sense.  It is designed to provide cover for those who would do harm to disfavored minorities--particularly including sexual minorities including homosexuals, bisexuals, and the transgendered--out of a misguided sense that doing so somehow pleases Jesus.

Like it or not--and I like it, because I love freedom--we are living in an America today that has changed.  We are on the cusp of finally fulfilling the promise of our forefathers, that all of us are created equal, even as we are different, and that each of us meets the law and society on our own terms as Americans.  What has brought us there is not a law or a principle, but the recognition among a majority of Americans that our great nation belongs to us all, and that we must not use the instrumentalities of that nation to set apart a second, inferior class of American based on the different choices they make or characteristics that they possess.

Even in Arkansas, those who would oppose the growth of our American civilization to the mark set out at its start are in the minority.  And those of us who believe, as I do, that our great American principles mean something have, to be frank, grown tired of all of this yammering to the contrary.

The freedom of religion does not mean the right to discriminate in public accommodations or in ordinary commerce.  Freedom of religion means, in one sense, the right to confine the things that you do, or do not do, to your own conscience.  I am sick to death of this analogy, but I am compelled by the argument to comment on it:  If you are in the business of baking wedding cakes, then you can choose the conditions under which you will work based on the dictates of your individual conscience--for example, refusing to work on Sunday, if that is your sincere religious practice--but you must take all comers for the commercial transaction of cake-selling.  That is the only way that this works.  If you believe that baking a cake for a same-sex couple's wedding is a sin, then it's time to stop baking wedding cakes.

In another part of the standard analogy, the proponents of this legislation ask, why can't a Jewish deli owner be compelled to sell a ham-and-cheese sandwich to a customer who wants one?  This is a false analogy.  The deli owner (of any religion) who doesn't stock a particular meat doesn't sell that meat to anyone out of his own choice.  The more apt analogy would be a deli owner who will sell ham to customers to feed to their dogs but not to customers who want to eat it.  It is not the right of the vendor to interject himself into the customer's end of the transaction and impose his own moral views on their activities.

I have no problem with anyone for their own religious practices.  If you want to deprive yourself of something for religion's sake, that's your choice.  If you want to refrain from gambling at Oaklawn because you believe it is sinful, or if you want to want to abstain from alcohol out of religious duty, or if you want to carry on with an unwanted pregnancy because you believe abortion is wrong, then carry on.  You'll get no argument from me.

The problem isn't religious practice.  The problem is the earnest and insatiable desire of religious zealots to use the power of the government to impose their religious values on others.  That's at the root of HB1228 and of countless other pieces of legislation that have spewed forth from the 90th General Assembly.  What these people are doing and advocating might be entirely in conformity with what they believe their god calls them to do, but it is entirely at odds with what it means, fundamentally, to be an American in a free society.

Liberty is a blessing, but it comes with the caveat that if we are all free, some of us will do things that others of us don't like.  It is incumbent upon us as Americans to know where the line is drawn, between individual choices and the imperatives of civilization, and to set up our laws so as to balance the two to maximize the utility of the liberty that we all share.

I know it will fall on deaf ears, but I call on the governor to veto this piece of legislation. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015


Arkansas state Rep. Justin Harris (R-Northwest Wackoville) has been in the media recently.  The facts of his current fame are as follows:  Harris's day job involves running a nominally Christian day care center.  Harris and his wife adopted two young girls some time ago, in the process apparently applying pressure to the Arkansas Department of Human Services to complete the adoption.

Unfortunately, the adoption didn't work out, for reasons that have not been made clear.  Rather than getting help dealing with the situation, Harris and his wife "re-homed" the girls--in other words, abandoned them to the care of someone else--with a former employee...who proceeded to rape the older girl, 6.  The employee's now at the long end of a 40-year prison term; he pled guilty as part of an agreement that will keep him locked up for just shy of the maximum term.

Recently, some top-notch, maybe Pulitzer-worthy* reporting by the Arkansas Times's Benjamin Hardy brought these facts to light. Unsurprisingly, Harris has sought to cast himself in the role of victim, claiming that the two girls posed a danger to his older children, and that re-homing was necessary to protect his family.  He also claims that he could not go back to DHS with these problems because he was being threatened with a child abandonment charge if he did.

* - That's not hyperbole.  I hope his article series gets submitted for consideration.

At this point, I've lost my capacity for astonishment.  Whether it's Tom Cotton writing petulant letters to the Ayatollah Khamenei on Constitutional law, or the Legislature actively seeking ways to harm their constituents, I simply cannot be surprised by the depths of depravity to which the modern Republican Party has sunk.  (Maybe it's not fair to tar all Republicans with that brush, but, then again, they choose to be Republicans.)

And yet...the Harris case is world-class.  I find myself asking how this man can possibly plan to continue as a legislator.  I can't find anyone who's coming to his defense on the merits of anything he did.  The best anyone seems to be able to offer is "He made some mistakes."

Even so, I had gotten used to the idea that someone could (a) show little if any remorse for having turned over his children to a rapist, (b) continue to cash support checks provided by the State even after he had turned over this children, (c) portray himself as the victim in all of this, and (d) stay in office as a legislator.  That last bit may not be entirely up to him--he can be expelled by a two-thirds vote of the House--but it's the wanting to stay that ought to surprise us.

But then it came out yesterday that the principal reason he re-homed his children was that he thought they were possessed by demons.

Let that sink in just a bit.

I know, right?  Demons.

Now, people like Justin Harris have been hard at work trying to roll back the calendar.  The 1950s have been a popular target, aiming as they are for a time when discrimination was OK, and women were kept barefoot and pregnant, and abortion was a crime.  But Harris's reliance on the existence of demons as an explanation for behavior is more at home in the 1590s.

So, I never thought it would be necessary to say these things, but here goes:

Demons aren't real.

Nothing possessed those little girls, nor anyone else.

Perhaps they have some problems that caused them to behave poorly. Maybe they were even dangerous to themselves or to others, although it's hard to conceive of a 6-year-old doing much real damage to anyone.  And good grief, the fact that they were in the DHS system indicates that something has gone terribly wrong.

But they were not under the control of any supernatural force, because there are no supernatural forces.

I try very hard not to criticize people for believing in supernatural forces.  If you need that for your life to have meaning, or to behave the right way, or to keep yourself from abusing alcohol or drugs or whatever, or because you've been told that terrible things will happen to you after you die if you don't believe, then I'm not going to criticize you even though I don't believe in those things.  The truth is that there are a lot more people who believe (or profess to believe) in supernatural forces than who don't, especially in this state, and it is often easier to go along to get along, to believe rather than to do the hard work of living in the real world.

But mostly it's an excuse--an excuse for behaving badly, or for not doing something you should, or for doing something you shouldn't, or for general incuriousness about the world.

And when it results in the chain of events that led to this horrible outcome, enough is enough.  He's living in a dream world.

If you believe in the existence and influence of "demons" in worldly affairs, then you have no business making decisions that affect other people.  Not as a legislator especially.  If all of the other factors weren't enough, then that one ought to be. Justin Harris should resign.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

High Cotton

"Treason doth never prosper. What's the reason? Why if it prosper, none dare call it treason."
-- Sir John Harington

I led off with that quote for a couple of reasons.  First, even though he misspelled his own name, Sir John was an interesting character.  He was a courtesan during the reign of Elizabeth I, a talented and perceptive writer (as the epigram shows), and the inventor of a flush toilet (not "the" flush toilet, per se, as examples preceded him by centuries).  Second, our junior Senator has managed to fling a large turd into the Washington punch bowl, for which Sir John's invention might be of some use.

*    *    *

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) grabbed the headlines yesterday with a letter, co-signed by 46 of his Republican senate colleagues, to the government of Iran.  In the letter, he lectured Iran's government on the American constitutional system, noting that any agreement that might be signed by President Obama but not approved by the Congress could be revoked with the stroke of a pen by a future President.

Sen. Cotton no doubt imagines himself in that chair one day, and as much confidence as he has that he can get there, I am even more confident that he will be out of luck on that point.

(As a side note, I've been away from this blog for a considerable time due to work commitments, but I had to write on this subject.)

I offer a few comments on all of this.

First, I'm sure that Sen. Cotton is proud of his effort, but the letter itself strikes me as petulant and condescending.  Perhaps Sen. Cotton imagines the Iranians as uneducated camel-humpers, but Iran is a place of civilization and culture.  Many of the people in the Iranian government are well educated, almost technocratic, and certainly up to date not only on their own laws but also on ours.  The Iranian Constitution was based on that of the French Fifth Republic, with notable influences from our own Constitution in the structure and organization of government.  The Iranian government is overlaid with a clerical system that makes it an Islamic theocracy, but it is a functioning democracy that retains religious protections for non-Muslims--at least, those whose religions were established before Islam.

Second, this sort of effort is sadly typical of a certain party.  Leaving aside the cottage industry that Sen. John McCain has made of personal diplomacy of a most erroneous sort (most recently, he suggested arming Syrian rebels who later turned out to be the founders of the purported "Islamic State," also known as ISIL or ISIS), Richard Nixon's private diplomacy likely torpedoed a peace agreement with North Vietnam in 1968, and there are persistent rumors that Ronald Reagan offered a deal to the Iranians in exchange for their refusal to release the hostages in 1980.

Notwithstanding the headline in the New York Daily News, this letter does not amount to treason.  The crime of treason is defined in the Constitution:  Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.  This doesn't meet that definition.

But private diplomacy is against one of our oldest laws, the Logan Act, which provides:

Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.
This section shall not abridge the right of a citizen to apply himself, or his agent, to any foreign government, or the agents thereof, for redress of any injury which he may have sustained from such government or any of its agents or subjects.
 (18 U.S.C. § 953.)

This letter, as it is intended, almost certainly violates that act, which is a felony punishable by three years in prison.

Which brings us to the point:  Why send this letter at all?

Perhaps it was sent to grab attention, but more likely, the intent was to disrupt the sensitive negotiations among the U.S., Iran, the United Nations, and others, the goal of which is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

The cynic in me wants to believe that Cotton's motivation is merely to deny the President a diplomatic triumph.  If there is any operative political rule in this country, since January 20, 2009, that rule has been that if Obama is for something, the Republicans are against it. 

But I'd really prefer to believe that they wouldn't be such children about something so important.  The problem with that is this:  They must then be genuinely stupid or malicious, and I'm not sure which is worse.

If their goal really is, as they say, to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Iranians, then the likeliest way to do that is to support these talks.  The aim of these talks is to get Iran to give up their nuclear programme for a long period, which certainly aids the purported goal.  Undermining the talks does the opposite of what they say they want.

But maybe their goal isn't to keep nuclear weapons out of Iran.  We know that the GOP has had a boner for war with Iran for a long time.  You only have to listen to this YouTube clip to know that.  The truth is that a diplomatic solution in Iran will make war far less likely, thereby undermining the GOP's goal of lining defense contractors' pockets to run the perpetual war machine.

On second thought, that's not (just) malicious.  It's depraved.

I have no confidence that Cotton will see any legal consequences from this.  And maybe the Logan Act is a very old law that doesn't serve a modern purpose.  But there should be political consequences for this depraved act.  If the media can tear themselves away from the Hillary Clinton email issue for a few moments, maybe there will be.