Monday, April 29, 2013

Immune to Evidence

Our political polarization and dysfunctional public debate is largely driven by convictions and worldviews immune to contrary evidence and expertise.

-- Tom Allen, Dangerous Convictions (2013)

This week everybody was talking about the Tsarnaev brothers, Chechens, and Muslims

One measure of prejudice is how easily an individual can be reduced to a group stereotype, so that he shares the collective guilt of his people and passes his guilt on to them.

I'm old enough to remember the 1980s, when the Irish Republican Army was one of the most feared terrorist groups on the planet. (An engineering conference I attended in Brighton was originally slated for the Grand Hotel before the IRA blew it up. You can get the flavor of the times by watching the classic 1980 film "The Long Good Friday" in which an English gangster learns that the ordinary rules of gang war don't apply when you cross the IRA.)

Know what I don't remember? Public discussions about whether the Irish are terrorists by nature or Catholicism is a religion of violence. (I'd love to hear Irish Catholic Bill O'Reilly respond to those questions.) That's the measure of our prejudice against Muslims and Chechens, or perhaps of the privilege our society accords Catholics and the Irish.

In fact, many of the loudest Islamophobic politicians today winked and nodded at IRA fund-raising in the US then. Anti-Muslim Congressman Peter King went even further, speaking at a pro-IRA rally in 1982.

Right-wing Christians have committed acts of terror in the US, such as the assassination of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas. (I call this terror rather than just murder, because the point wasn't merely to kill Tiller, but to intimidate any doctor who might think about replacing him.) Tiller's murderer is revered as a hero by the Army of God. If they were the only Christian group you ever read about in the newspapers, what would you think of Christianity?

The measure of Christian privilege in America is that Christians and Christian churches don't have to comment on such crimes unless they want to. But the Cambridge mosque the Tsarnaev brothers had a tangential connection with did feel obligated to issue a denunciation of the bombing. Even so, no matter how often such denunciations happen, American Islamophobes won't hear them and will claim Muslims "remain silent".

As a native-born white American male, I never have to worry that somebody might hold Adam Lanza or Jared Loughner or Don Blankenship against me, or wonder why I haven't denounced their crimes loudly enough. That's the measure of my privilege: Unlike Muslims or Chechens, I have the right to be judged as an individual; I can't be reduced to the stereotype of my group.

Interesting finding from sociologist Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame): Religious beliefs are not correlated with public-spirited virtues like generosity, but commitments to a religious community are. The people to worry about are not the members of the Islamic Society of Boston, but the intensely committed believers (of any faith) who are unsocialized by a church, synagogue, mosque, or whatever institution draws people of that faith together.

John Cassidy imagines how the public discussion would be different if the Tsarnaevs had used assault rifles rather than bombs.

which led to a discussion of conspiracy theories

many of which have been inspired by the Boston bombing.

Rachel Maddow did a great piece about the mainstreaming of right-wing conspiracy theories. Stuff that responsible conservative leaders would have ostracized a generation ago (as William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater ostracized the John Birch Society in the 1960s) is now getting the hearing it doesn't deserve. What used to be "crazy" is becoming merely "controversial".

Steve Benen points out:
This just doesn't happen on the left. This is not to say there aren't wacky left-wing conspiracy theorists -- there are, and some of them send me strange emails -- but we just don't see prominent, center-left media professionals trumpet such silliness or Democratic members of Congress racing to take the nonsense seriously.

It's hard to know what to do with crazy theories like Boston-was-a-false-flag-operation or Obama-protected-the-Saudi-bomber. Arguing against them in some way validates that they're worth arguing about -- that the theory is controversial, not crazy. As you undoubtedly know if you have a friend who sends you such stuff, it's easy to get sucked into the details of bizarre theories, and the conspiracy theorists love it when you do. Whatever psychological need conspiracy theories fill, nothing scratches that itch better than arguing obscure details with a doubter.

Conspiracy theories attract because they make life more interesting; they let the theorist be an insider, superior to the sheep who accept conventional views; they simplify the bewildering complexity of events and are strangely reassuring -- better to believe the world is controlled by an evil conspiracy than face the fact that it's out of control altogether.

So when Uncle Dave sends you that link to some talking-head "proving" something ridiculous, your response (if any) should be boring and not provide any opportunity for him to demonstrate his superior knowledge. Here's what I suggest: Return a link to this video of a talking head making sense about conspiracy theories in general.

Send the same link every time: This is my response. I'm going to keep giving the same answer as long as you keep making the same mistake, no matter how many different ways you make it.

Make sure he realizes you wasted no time at all figuring out how to address the unique issues raised by this particular theory. Be repetitive. Be boring. Don't scratch the itch.

But I wrote about the dysfunctionality of Congress

Or rather, former Maine Congressman Tom Allen did, and I reviewed his book.

We also heard a lot about the George W. Bush legacy

The new Bush Library opened in Dallas Thursday. And so began a predictable attempt by conservatives to whitewash the memory of one of the worst presidents of all time.

I don't have to list and refute all their arguments, because Alex Seitz-Wald already did on Salon. And wruckusgroink on Daily Kos asked the right question: What if (instead of all the incompetent and evil things he did), President Bush had done nothing? What if he had just put the government on cruise control with the peace-and-prosperity policies Clinton had in place? "All Bush had to do was NOTHING to have a successful presidency."

On the idea that historians will eventually give President Bush more credit (as they have Truman and to a lesser extent LBJ and Nixon), I stand by what I wrote as Bush was leaving office:
What happens when historians re-evaluate a president? Picture the events of a presidency as weights on a two-pan scale: a success pan and a failure pan. Even with the advantage of hindsight, an event seldom jumps from one pan to the other. Bad things stay bad; good things stay good. All that changes is our estimate of how much the events weigh.

... Now picture future historians re-assessing W. The weights may grow or shrink, but they’re not going to jump from one pan to the other. Nobody’s going to conclude that, in retrospect, Bush handled Hurricane Katrina well, or that he really did capture Bin Laden. Ignoring terrorism until 9/11 and turning a $200-billion surplus into a $1.2 trillion deficit are never going to seem like deft moves. The lies he told to start the Iraq War will not to stand to his credit, no matter what awaits in Baghdad’s unforeseeable future. Torture and illegal wiretaps are always going to stain Bush’s record, just as the Japanese internment stains FDR’s and the Palmer raids stain Wilson’s.

That’s the failure pan. So what NATOs, Marshall Plans, Berlin Airlifts, China breakthroughs, or Voting Rights Acts sit in Bush’s success pan? What accomplishments can future historians re-weigh to shift the balance in his favor?

I don’t see any likely candidates. That’s why I expect Bush to wind up more like Herbert Hoover than Harry Truman.

So far, that prediction is holding up. But I will admit to being surprised by this: The post-Bush Republican Party has gone so far off the deep end that W doesn't seem nearly as radical as he did at the time.

In other Bush-related news, the Constitution Project's bipartisan report on detainee treatment after 9-11 came out. "The most important  or notable finding of this panel is that it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture."

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Having spent the last several years watching the final decline of both of my parents, I can testify that this is a very important article: If this was a pill, you’d do anything to get it by Ezra Klein.

An experimental Medicare program in Pennsylvania does something radically low-tech: It identifies old people with chronic illnesses and sends a nurse to visit them once a week. The nurse answers questions, straightens out confusions about medications, notices if the patient suddenly looks worse, and so forth. The goal is to catch problems before they require hospitalization, because spending time in the hospital is bad for chronically ill old people. The program's architect says:
Being in the hospital for three days or five days sets them back to a point where they’ll never regain what they were. That’s where the scales tip. That’s where people end up needing a nursing home.

Turns out, the program works, as proved by randomized trials over more than a dozen years. The patients are healthier, stay out of the hospital, and so cost less for Medicare to cover -- even after paying the nurse. If you've spent any time with chronically ill people in their 80s, none of this should surprise you.

So is Medicare taking the program national? No, they're shutting it down in June. Says one expert:
There is a bias in medicine against talking to people and for cutting, scanning and chopping into them. If this was a pill or or a machine with these results it would be front-page news in the Wall Street Journal.

The Daily Show's John Oliver was at his best in this segment, in which he compares the Australian politicians willing to implement gun control even at the cost of their careers to American politicians whose definition of "success" fails to mention the public good.

"Never again," he says, "will a political career end in a senseless act of meaningful legislation."

BP lied twice about the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill: It claimed the spill was about 1/10th of its actual size, and it told the clean-up workers that the dispersant they were exposed to was safe. Now we have the safety manual they were supposed to distribute, but didn't.

The NYT Magazine's "Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer" points out an inconvenient truth: Raising "awareness" isn't actually moving us any closer to a cure.

Poor Todd Akin has had to relive his "legitimate rape" comment over and over again. It must be tough to have such a traumatic experience and then wonder for the rest of your life if you might have avoided it somehow. If only our society had more compassion for people who suffer through things like that.

In addition to Afghanistan and Iraq, President Obama may be winding down another war: the war on drugs. "While law enforcement will always play a vital role in protecting our communities from drug-related crime and violence, we simply cannot incarcerate our way out of the drug problem."

The White House report calls for prevention through education. Let's hope that means accurate education, rather than the anti-drug propaganda I remember from high school. Here's what I learned from my high school drug programs: Adults would spout any kind of BS to get me to do what they wanted. That lesson stuck with me.

The Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job (about Wall Street's role in creating the housing bubble that started the Great Recession) is available for free on YouTube. In HD, no less. Based on Charles Ferguson's outstanding book Predator Nation, narrated by Matt Damon, free on your computer right now -- what's not to like?

The Bangladesh disaster and follow-up on the Texas factory explosion will have to wait until next week.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Unaffordable Luxuries

In the immediate wake of great disasters -- a flood, a blackout, or an economic collapse -- people tend to behave the same way, reverting to a rough-and-ready communism. However briefly, hierarchies and markets and the like become luxuries that no one can afford. 

-- David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years

This week everybody was talking about the Boston Marathon bombing

Living 30 miles from Boston, I had a hard time finding anybody who wanted to talk about anything else.

Here's my hope for the long-term effect of the Marathon bombing: Maybe this will undo some of 9-11's impact on the American psyche. That's the point of this week's lead article: "Maybe 9-11 Can Be Over Now".

The way everybody pitched in reminded me of the David Graeber quote at the top of the post. (I reviewed his book in 2011.) In Copley Square and Mass General Hospital, nobody was worrying about how they would get paid. For a few hours it was just "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

The first responders did a great job. The hospitals did a great job. (New Yorker columnist Atul Gawande is both a great writer and a doctor at a Boston hospital, so his account of the symbiosis between systemic planning and individual initiative is particularly insightful.) The police did a great job. (Esquire columnist Charles Pierce is a great writer from Watertown. His account is worth reading too.)

The big corporate media did not do a good job. CNN had that horrible afternoon where it reported an imaginary arrest.

Comedian Andy Borowitz nailed them:
Authorities who have spent the past forty-eight hours combing CNN in the hopes of finding any information whatsoever have called off their search, they confirmed today.

Rupert Murdoch's New York Post was even worse: It put photos of the wrong suspects on its front page. (Thank God those two guys weren't lynched.)

Some alternative media did better. TPM assembled a useful chronology of what happened when. And Wikipedia continues to be an under-appreciated resource for staying on top of current events.

There's been a lot of back-and-forth about whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be read his Miranda rights or whether the public-safety exception applies. ThinkProgress explains the history of the exception pretty well. As I get it, officials would be justified in asking something like "Are there any more bombs out there?" to protect public safety. But if they're asking questions to build a criminal case, Miranda applies.

A lot of Muslim-haters -- people who still probably can't find Chechnya on a map -- have been using this event as a new excuse to hate Muslims. Cartoonist Clay Bennett expresses my point of view:

and the Senate filibuster that defeated the gun bill

The background-check amedment, already watered down from a proposal that has consistently polled at around 90%, failed to get past a Republican filibuster Wednesday.

The New Yorker's Alex Koppelman wrote about how depressingly unsurprising this was:
it wasn’t just the vote to block Toomey-Manchin that was so disheartening—that a minority of the Senate, representing a minority of Americans, was able to vote down legislation that had been so watered-down as to make it utterly unobjectionable. It wasn’t just that the Republican-controlled House would never have passed the bill, even if there had been sixty votes for background checks in the Senate. It was watching the whole process, realizing again so vividly and on an issue that matters so much, that the people who make the laws for three hundred million people are often cowards or fools or both.

The most blood-boiling thing was Mitch McConnell crowing about his ability to thwart the public will, emphasizing that no compromise had ever been possible. (See photo, posted to Facebook by McConnell.)

And satirist Andy Borowitz was having a good week:
In the halls of the United States Senate, dozens of Senators congratulated themselves today for having what one of them called “the courage and grit to stand up to the overwhelming wishes of the American people.”

and the Texas fertilizer explosion

The owners of the West Fertilizer Company caught a break this week. Yeah, their Texas plant blew up Wednesday, killing at least 14 and injuring hundreds, but it didn't fit into the terrorism narrative established in Boston on Monday, so hardly anybody paid attention.

Nobody knows yet exactly how the blast happened, but on the surface the situation resembles the Upper Big Branch mine disaster of 2010: insufficient inspections, safety violations, and wrist-slap fines that the company treated as a cost of doing business. Congressman Bennie Thompson:
It seems this manufacturer was willfully off the grid. This facility was known to have chemicals well above the threshold amount to be regulated under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act (CFATS), yet we understand that DHS did not even know the plant existed until it blew up.
The Nation's Richard Kim does an interesting thought experiment: What if we took this kind of violence and innocent death as seriously as we take terrorism?
Let’s imagine that the question—Why?—became so urgent that the nation simply could not rest until it had overdetermined the answers. We’d discover that OSHA hadn’t inspected the plant in 28 years—did this play a role in the disaster? If it’s found that the company that owns the plant, Adair Grain, violated safety regulations, as it had last year at another facility, we might call it criminal negligence and attribute culpability. But would we ascribe ideology? And which ideology would we indict? Deregulation? Austerity? Capitalism? Would we write headlines that say—Officials Seek Motive in Texas Fertilizer Explosion? And could we name “profit” as that motive in the same way that we might name, say, “Islam” as the motive for terrorism? Would we arrest the plant’s owners, deny them their Miranda rights and seek to try them in an extra-legal tribunal outside the Constitution, as Senator Lindsey Graham has suggested we treat US citizen Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

and the debunking of an influential economics paper

which (believe it or not) you should care about. That's my second featured article this week: "Why the Austerity Fraud Matters".

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I have heard from my own high-school-student sources about pro-abstinence assemblies, where outside speakers mix sexual misinformation with conservative religion. So I can't say I was shocked by the descriptions of the West Virginia assembly that  Katelyn Campbell protested.

Apparently she protested so well that her principal resorted to threats: He said he would call Wellesley College, where Campbell has been accepted to study in the fall, and give her a bad character reference. Campbell refused to be intimidated, and Wellesley appears to be impressed, as they should be.

If you want to discourage something, tax it. So these six states tax poverty.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Buying Civilization

I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.-- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

This week everybody was talking about Margaret Thatcher's life and death

The Iron Lady hasn't been prime minister since 1990, so you might think the old wounds would have scabbed over by now. Apparently not. After Thatcher's death was announced, "Ding-Dong the Witch is Dead" went to #1 on iTunes-UK. Not to defend her, but do I have to point out how sexist that is? If she were male, maybe opponents could be satisfied with Elvis Costello's "Tramp the Dirt Down".

When her death was falsely reported in 2008 and plans for a 3-million-pound state funeral came out, Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle commented:
For 3 million, they could give everyone in Scotland a shovel, and we would dig a hole so deep that we could hand her over to Satan personally.

To put her impact in American terms, Thatcher was the anti-FDR. By the time she left office, the union-dominated Britain of the 1970s was as hard to remember as the Roaring Twenties were when Roosevelt died in office in 1945.

She inspired the Reagan Revolution in the US, and symbolized the plutocratic and plutolatric trends that today make the US and the UK (plus Italy, for some reason) the rich countries with the greatest inequality and the least economic mobility.

I guess that's hard to forget.

and taxes

It's April 15, time for my annual attempt to popularize the term work penalty -- the extra tax you pay because you work for a living rather than having money that works for you: How Big Was Your Work Penalty in 2012?

Of course, we can't tax wealthy heirs, and we can't tax their dividend or capital gain income because ... well, just because. They're "job creators" or something. There's a word for this, plutolatry. It usually means "worship of wealth", but it could also mean "worship of the rich". I'm looking for ways to work it into conversations, like I did in the previous section.

Another Tax Day point worth making: Americans would save a lot of time and money if the IRS would use the information it has and just mail us a bill. If your tax situation was simple, you could pay the bill and be done with it, but if you wanted to itemize or claim some complicated tax break, you could file a return the way you do now.

Why doesn't that happen? Two reasons: The tax-prep industry makes money from the current arrangement, so they lobby Congress to keep things the way they are. And anti-tax conservatives want Tax Day to be painful so that the public will resent paying taxes.

and Obama's budget

which included a proposal to figure the cost-of-living adjustments to Social Security using the stingier chained CPI. I discuss this in Four Things I Know About Social Security. #3 is "Chained CPI is a way to cut Social Security benefits, not a way to measure inflation more accurately."

and (oddly) a C&W song

For some reason I haven't fathomed, this week all sorts of people were moved to comment on Brad Paisley's new song  "Accidental Racist" (performed with black rapper L L Cool J). The song has a why-can't-we-all-just-get-along theme, but annoys blacks and liberals by (among other things) making a false equivalence between whites judging a black man by his gold-chain bling and blacks not forgiving whites for the iron chains their ancestors wore.

In my terminology, Paisley is expressing privileged distress: His song's main character (never assume a song is autobiographical) suffers because blacks now feel empowered enough to object to racist crap (like a confederate-flag t-shirt) that he used to get away with. He then imagines that his suffering is comparable to what blacks suffer from racism, so he's ready to call it even and wipe the slate clean.

The debate basically amounts to: Yeah, the song raises the race issue in a pretty clueless way, but if it were any more clueful, Paisley's fans wouldn't listen to it and so wouldn't be thinking about overcoming racism at all. Half a loaf.

While we're on the subject of racial cluelessness, Rand Paul spoke at historically black Howard University. Paul treated the Republican Party's dismal performance among black voters as some of kind of mystery. He reviewed the party's stellar racial record from Lincoln through the 1950s, and then skipped completely over the last 50 years, when Republicans courted the racist Dixiecrats who were leaving the Democratic Party after it embraced the Civil Rights movement. (Charles Blow filled in that history for Paul. I reviewed it in detail in December.)

Jon Stewart summarized:
You can’t just yada yada yada the last 60 Republican years: “A Republican freed the slaves, gave black people the vote, yada yada yada, and now all blacks vote Democratic. I mean, what the hell?"
Josh Marshall commented on Paul's shock that his audience already knew the history he was trying to tell them and still wasn't sold:
When you look at who’s the bamboozled and who’s the bamboozler in this part of the GOP subculture you see that it’s not so clear cut. ... The GOP is so deep into its own self-justifying racial alternative reality that there’s some genuine surprise when the claptrap doesn’t survive first contact with actual black people.

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An unplanned consequence of putting armed police in public schools: Incidents that used to send you to the principal's office now send you to court. The NYT reports:
Joshua, a ninth grader who lives south of Houston, got into a brief fight on a school bus in November after another boy, a security video showed, hit him first. The principal called in the school’s resident sheriff, who wrote them both up for disorderly conduct.

Charges were eventually dismissed, but Joshua had to find a lawyer and miss class for two court appearances. "I thought it was stupid," he said.

Harvard's Jal Mehta proposes a really radical change in education policy: Train teachers rigorously and well, and then let them do what they're paid to do.

Show this to the next person who tells you about "liberal media bias" on climate change.

Number of climate scientists participating in discussion: zero.

Exxon's pipeline spill in Arkansas is much smaller and less messy than a Keystone XL spill would be. Imagine this in your back yard.

Yet another sad story about a teen rape victim getting hounded by her peers.

You've got to wonder if this is finally the right place for a "Just Say No" approach. As we saw in the Steubenville case, a lot of teen guys seem not to realize (at least not until after the fact) that it's wrong to take advantage of a girl who can't resist. That's why I like this video.

Monday, April 8, 2013

No Argument

Straight couples write their own ticket. That's why they can't craft an argument to justify excluding same-sex couples from the institution of marriage. It's not because we want to redefine it. It's because straight people redefined it to an extent where there's no argument that can be made to exclude same-sex couples.

-- Dan Savage (December 9, 2012)

These last few weeks everybody was talking about same-sex marriage

which was argued before the Supreme Court. (Full transcript and audio at NPR.) More specifically, the Court is considering the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (which tells the federal government not to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in the states that allow them) and California's Proposition 8 (which made same-sex marriage illegal in California by constitutional amendment).

There's been an element of triumphalism in the liberal coverage of the hearings, as it became clear in the verbal arguments that the pro-DOMA, anti-marriage-equality side is really straining to find any legal-sounding fig leaf to justify its position.*

This lack of a leg to stand on vindicates Massachusetts Chief Justice Margaret Marshall's ground-breaking opinion in 2003 (the first case I ever blogged about). Marshall wrote that a same-sex marriage ban had "no rational relationship" to any legitimate goal of the state. At the time, conservatives were greatly offended by the implication that they were irrational, but now that they have to spell out that rational relationship, all they can do is huff and puff.

The other reason to feel triumphant is the parade of Democratic politicians flipping to support marriage equality. Arguably, the recent trend started with Joe Biden, who seemed to be pushing President Obama last May. (Obama got on board a few days later.) In the last month, Bill Clinton renounced DOMA, which he signed, and Hillary Clinton has also endorsed marriage equality. Every day or two, a new Democratic senator joined the chorus, until last Monday there were just eight Democratic senators who have not. Wait, make that seven. No, six. Sorry, four: Manchin of West Virginia, Pryor of Arkansas, Landrieu of Louisiana, and Johnson of South Dakota. All are from states Obama lost handily in 2012, and all but Manchin are up for re-election in 2014.

Even the occasional Republican has flipped, like Ohio Senator Rob Portman and Illinois Senator Mark KirkBill O'Reilly now says "The compelling argument is on the side of homosexuals", and Rush Limbaugh admits that the issue is "lost".

This is all in line with my post "Everybody will support same-sex marriage by 2030" last May. The trends are clear and politicians of both parties can read them. So Biden jumped before Obama because Obama focused only on the 2012 general election, while Biden was also looking at the 2016 Democratic primaries. Claire McCaskill flipped because she doesn't run again until 2018, by which time the issue will work in her favor, even in Missouri.

It will be a few elections before that logic takes hold on the Republican side, but by 2030, even Republican candidates for local offices in Alabama won't take an openly anti-gay position and expect to win on it, just as they don't take openly racist positions now.

The religious right is not folding, though, and this sets up a libertarian vs. theocrat battle that will probably divide the Republican party for years to come. Libertarians and corporatist Republicans will want to play the issue down to win elections, while theocrats will be looking for an Alamo they can defend to the last man.

*All of which raises the question: What really does motivate opponents of marriage equality?

Well, there's the obvious "Gay sex is yucky", which wouldn't be very compelling in court. Also, "My religion requires me to be a bigot", which likewise has no legal heft. And there are people who just dislike change in general. But none of that really explains the opponents' sky-is-falling urgency.

Tiffany Wayne suggests something deeper that I find more likely: Defense of "traditional marriage" is really about defending traditional gender roles. Same-sex marriage is threatening because it frames marriage as a negotiated relationship between equals, not as the divinely mandated submission of a wife/mother to the authority of a husband/father, each of whom has a well defined, divinely mandated role in the household.
I am struck in listening to the opposition to same-sex marriage by the persistent denial that gender is a socially constructed role. This is a “traditional” view of marriage in the sense that it is grounded in “biology is destiny,” or specific roles assigned based on sex. It is an extremely narrow view of “marriage” based on specific roles assigned by sex, rather than marriage as an emotional and physical and social partnership between two individuals.  Most telling, it is a view that denies that heterosexual people can be in egalitarian marriages, or should be. It is a belief in “traditional” marriage as hierarchical. Not as a true partnership of equals, but as a microcosm of society with a power structure that flows from husband to wife to children.

I'm reminded of this exchange between Chris Hayes and Dan Savage last December:
SAVAGE: We only hear that monogamy or children or religion are defining characteristics of marriage when same-sex couples want to marry.

Straight couples write their own ticket. That's why they can't craft an argument to justify excluding same-sex couples from the institution of marriage. It's not because we want to redefine it. It's because straight people redefined it to an extent where there's no argument that can be made to exclude same-sex couples.

It is the legal, romantic, hopefully sexual union of two legally autonomous individuals, period, the end. They get to write their own ticket, they get to write their own vows. They can, you know, assume all in their relationship and their marriage, all the typical things people might expect a marriage to be.

HAYES: Or not.

SAVAGE: Or they can write -- they can be something very different. Marriage is very subjective and interesting and new. And redefined by straight people.

That is a more compelling reason to oppose marriage equality for same-sex couples: opposition to the equality-within-marriage that is becoming the new norm for straights and gays alike. It also explains why the religious right can't make its case openly: That argument was already lost years ago.

and Mike Rice

I don't usually do sports stories here, but the firing of the Rutgers basketball coach turned into something larger when conservative pundits framed Rice's abusive behavior as "old-fashioned discipline". What I find weird in the conservative focus on "discipline" is that they always think the people on the bottom need more discipline, never the people at the top. I elaborate in Mike Rice, Sean Hannity, and the Real American Discipline Problem. If you're talking about bankers, billionaires, and CEOs, then I totally agree: America needs more discipline.

If this article reminds any of you of One Word Turns the Tea Party Around, where I made sense out of Tea Party rhetoric by changing the word government to corporations -- yeah, me too.

and North Korea

All kinds of saber-rattling has been coming out of North Korea lately, and there's a big debate on about whether this is business-as-usual, the new ruler trying to build respect inside his country, a predictable test for the new South Korean president, or something to worry about.

I have never pretended to understand North Korea, so I went looking for people who think they do. Foreign Policy has a worry-but-don't-panic article. I also found this video dialog between Economist editors to be instructive.

and guns

This Dan Wasserman cartoon pretty well covers it: The Senate looks like it might not even pass the universal background check provision that 90% of the country supports. But substantial new gun laws have gotten through in Connecticut (Sandy Hook) and Colorado (Aurora, Columbine), as well as New York and Maryland.

One thing I think all the NRA-cowed politicians are forgetting: Yes, the wave set off by any particular massacre eventually dissipates, but what about the next one?

That's why it's important to bring anti-gun-violence measures to a vote, even if it's obvious they won't pass. If Sandy Hook turns out to be the last massacre, great. But if it's not, and if the next one could have been prevented by the measures being debated now (as Sandy Hook could have been prevented by renewing the assault-weapon ban in 2004), we want a clear record of who was responsible for defeating those measures.

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A serious polling group just polled a bunch of conspiracy theories the mainstream doesn't usually take seriously. PPP finds that 37% of the public (and a majority of Republicans) think global warming is a hoax. 28% (and 36% of Romney voters) still think Saddam Hussein was involved in 9-11, which 11% of the public believes the government knew about in advance, but allowed to happen. And is Obama the Anti-Christ? 22% of Romney voters say yes.

A lot of people got excited Monday about a bill introduced in the North Carolina legislature to let the state establish a state religion. (See the 19,000 comments on this HuffPost article.) I don't think it was an April Fool's joke, but it didn't matter: By Thursday the NC Speaker of the House said the bill will never come to a vote -- so never mind.

Clearly, not enough people have read's 5 Ways to Spot a Bullshit Political Story in Under 10 Seconds, which I linked to shortly after it came out last year. Way #2 is: "The headline is about a 'lawmaker' saying something stupid." Cracked editor David Wong points out: There are 7,382 state legislators in the U.S.; any group that size is bound to have some whackjobs in it; and any one of them can introduce a bill.

So it would really be newsworthy if some week no crazy-assed bills were proposed.

Rule of thumb: Don't waste your outrage. Unless your representative is the one embarrassing himself, pay no attention to a crazy-sounding bill in your own state legislature until it has gotten out of committee. Pay no attention to a crazy bill in some other state until it has passed one house.

Homework: The next crazy NC bill, to put a two-year waiting period on divorces. Is it time to get upset or not?

National Review and I have different visions of Wonderland.

The Kentucky legislature just passed a "religious freedom" bill over its governor's veto. The bill is short, and the key sentence is:
Government shall not substantially burden a person's freedom of religion. The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief may not be substantially burdened unless the government proves by clear and convincing evidence that it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest.

Religious conservatives have been moving in this direction for several years, with bills that allow medical service providers to refuse to provide services that violate their conscience (i.e., druggists can refuse to fill prescriptions for an abortion-inducing drug like RU-486), and with the court case challenging whether health insurance provided by private employers has to provide the contraception coverage mandated by ObamaCare. (As far as I know, no EMT has become a Jehovah's Witness and refused to give blood transfusions, but I believe he would have that right in Mississippi.)

As much as I dislike this bill, part of me is glad it passed, because I can stop making slippery-slope arguments now that Kentucky has slid all the way to the bottom. Now, if you don't want to hire women, you can invoke this law and your sincerely held religious belief that a woman's place is in the home. If you don't want to serve blacks, invoke this law and your sincere belief that God doesn't want the races to mix.

Of course, I don't recommend you try to invoke this law if your sincere beliefs are Muslim or atheist. As we've seen in neighboring Tennessee, religious freedom is for Christians -- you knew that, right?

But anyway, run free, religious Christian Kentuckians!

This message from "your high-speed internet and cable provider" isn't safe for work, but it's funny and true.