Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

White Men Are Scary (and Other Health Debate Observations)

August 11, 2009 By: Mel Category: Politics

There is an interesting comment stream on the Dissenting Justice blog this week.  Darren criticizes the disruptive behavior of the health care protesters in his post.  Many of the commenters called foul, claiming that liberals did not object when their side compared Bush to Hitler or disrupted meetings.

So the questions are

  1. Did liberals do the same thing?
  2. Did no one object?
  3. Are liberals being hypocrites?
  4. Why?

I think the answer to question one is yes.  Liberals certainly compared Bush to Hitler.  I doubt you would have to look too hard to find links calling Bush a fascist. As for Darth Chaney, we had to hit the fictional characters to describe the evil he represented. And Code Pink did disrupt congress with anti-war protests.

I disagree that nobody took them to task for it though.  Code Pink is derided on the mainstream left and right.  Check out this hilarious Daily Show clip.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
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Still, I think there is some hypocrisy here.  I laugh at Code Pink.  I’m not laughing at the health care protesters.  That is because of one simple fact.

I’m not scared of Code Pink.

The health care protesters, on the other hand, scare the shit out of me. I’ve never heard of anyone dying at the hands of a middle-aged, jewish mother in pepto-bismol pink.   (Although I sometimes think my jewish mother might be the death of me.)

Angry white men, on the other hand, are a whole different story.  When I see red-faced, white men spewing rage I think of lynch mobs and assassins.  I think of James Earl Ray and Timothy McVeigh and Scott Roeder.

You have guns.  We have pink feather boas.

I’m wrong though.  I’m not wrong about historical facts and I’m not wrong to be prudent when faced with angry people (especially if they might be armed).  But I am wrong to act out of fear.  When fear is a motivating factor, what you get is a bunch of scary people yelling at each other.  Fear cannot be the basis for democracy.

I’m also wrong to stereotype people I don’t know.  There are millions of people who think abortion is as wrong as Scott Roeder did, but they didn’t all go to abortion clinics and kill people.  Conservative guys don’t all go home at night and put on pointy, white hats.  Howard Zinn is an old white dude too.

There are people who genuinely believe that socialized medicine is a horrible idea, think it is coming, and don’t want to lie down and let it happen.  And I respect their right and willingness to stand up for what they believe, no matter how much I disagree with them.

It is possible, maybe even probable, that many of these people are connected to the Republican party or insurance companies or right wing lobby groups.  The fact is that all those people are also Americans.  They are Americans who, I believe, do not have the welfare of all of us in mind, but they are still Americans.

So here is my challenge to all sides.  Ask yourself what you are afraid of.  Ask yourself if you are acting out of fear.  Ask yourself if you can do better.

Religion and Politics: Making Peace with Obama’s Peacemaking

January 22, 2009 By: Mel Category: Politics, Religion

I knew I was going to vote for Barack Obama as soon as I saw his 2006 Call to Renewal speech (video below).

I am one of those secularists he spoke of who “dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant.” I cringe at the mention of god in speeches and roll my eyes when athletes thank god for a touchdown. So for a politician to speak positively about religion and make me want to vote for him is astounding.

It was the reasonableness of his speech that impressed me.

The majority of Americans, Obama pointed out, are religious. Ninety percent of Americans believe in god. Morality, for many Americans, has a religious basis. And as “law is by definition a codification of our morality,” he argues that it would be impossible for a religious person to completely leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.

And while I am wary about anyone who suggests even the slightest opening for religious morality in the public square, I was comforted by Obama’s statement that he does “not believe religious people have a monopoly on morality.” That may seem like an obvious thing, but it is a hard fought point with many religious people.

I believe strongly in democracy, as frustrating as it can be when you are in the minority. I agree with Obama that democracy requires dialogue. Democracy requires that people with wildly divergent views find common ground and Obama outlines a blueprint for finding that ground. Confront the differences head on. “Speak to people where they are at.” Do not concede difficult territory to “those with the most insular views.”

He tells secularists to stop avoiding religion and to respect that many people’s morality has a basis in their religious beliefs. To the other side he says that “democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion specific values…it requires that their proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason,” that they “can’t simply evoke god’s will.”

I was convinced. Here was a man who might actually believe in real democracy and who might have the ability to bridge some of those divides that paralyze our politics. He even made a rational case for why people are drawn to religion. He spoke of the desire for a “sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives.” He spoke of religion as a source of hope. Hope is something even godless liberals seemed to have been looking for. We certainly voted for it.

I was convinced. But it is one thing to hear these ideas in a speech. It is quite another to see it in practice.

I saw not one, but three different christian clergy during the inauguration festivities. I hated the idea that our political changing of leadership came with such a strong christian component. For all Obama’s talk in his 2006 speech about America no longer being just a christian nation, when it came down to it, he chose christ-times-three.

Most troubling was his pick of Rick Warren, a man who compared homosexuality to incest. I was incensed, especially coming off of the Prop 8 fiasco in California, a fiasco Rick Warren was on the wrong side of. But we should not have been surprised to find Warren there. After all, Obama mentions him as a friend back in his 2006 speech. Obama (ostensibly) disagrees with Warren on many issues, but he feels he has found an evangelical leader with whom he has some common ground.

So how much should we tolerate the intolerant? Can we take civility too far? If Obama is able to start a dialogue with the religious right, is it worth elevating someone with many deplorable views into such a prominent position? If that dialogue makes it so that evangelicals don’t just automatically vote for whatever republican says they are anti-abortion and anti-homosexual, is it worth it?

Will dialogue moderate extremest views? When Obama says that he is going to talk to foreign leaders without preconditions I applaud his move towards diplomacy. Some of those leaders base their governance on Islamic law, kill homosexuals, and deny the holocaust. Yet, I sincerely believe that diplomacy is the best course of action.

When the Bush administration refused to talk to those leaders, because they did not want to give them credibility, I denigrated them as ideologues. But why is it so much easier for me to understand elevating Ahmedenajad than Rick Warren? Granted, Ahmedenajad was not asked to speak at the inauguration, but what if a grand gesture was the only thing that might have opened the door?

Perhaps the beginning of an answer can be found in how the three clergy responded to Obama’s invitation. Openly gay episcopalian Gene Robinson was very careful not to make a christian prayer, using phrases like “every religions god.” And he took his time to speak about poverty, disease, and discrimination against “refugees, immigrants, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.”

Reverend Joseph Lowery also used his time to talk about social justice, saying “deliver us from the exploitation of the poor…and from favoritism toward the rich.” Lowery used language that was significantly more christian in tenor. Although ending with some humor helped, being at a political function where millions of people are calling out amen is uncomfortable for me to say the least. Still, he did make an effort to talk about “inclusion not exclusion” and referenced “our churches, our temples, our mosques.” He acknowledged those of other faiths, if not those of no faith.

But it was Rick Warren whose invitation caused the most controversy and it is evangelicals who always seem to be shoving their religious beliefs down my throat. So I was most curious to see what Warren would say. In the beginning, I must admit I was pleasantly surprised. He used his time to mark the historic occasion of electing the first African American president.

He asked for Obama to have wisdom, courage, and compassion. He called for respect for “all the earth” and for a “peaceful planet.” He even expressed that Americans are “united not by race, religion, or blood, but by our commitment to freedom and justice for all.”

Yet although Warren prayed for all of us to have humility, he showed us the ultimate arrogance by bringing jesus into our presidential inauguration and then reciting the lord’s prayer. This was disrespect, not just to nonbelievers, but to people of every other belief system.

I’m struggling to reconcile my philosophical beliefs in democracy and diplomacy with my intense feelings about the unjust and insulting views and manners of many believers. But I voted for Obama based on his ability to reason, to find common ground, to lead democratically, and to show all people respect – even those people who I don’t think deserve it.

This does not mean that I will blindly accept what Obama does. I’m still pissed about the lord’s prayer being recited and I will write letters and articles and scream from the rooftops when these things happen. I will fight that much harder for the rights of the GLBT community. I will fight that much harder for us nonbelievers to be shown some respect. I will fight that much harder for the arts and humanities, and other sources of non-religious morality, to be prioritized for a change.

But I’m also going to try and develop a little thicker skin and to respect the diplomatic efforts Obama is making. While the clergy did not mention us nonbelievers, Obama did. And as a man who was raised by a “secular humanist,” I believe that he respects us.

Obama ended his speech in 1996 by recounting an incident. A doctor with strong feelings against abortion wrote to him to express his disappointment that Obama’s website called all those against abortion extremists. Obama struck the doctor as being better than that. He gave Obama credit for being a just and fair minded person, despite this evidence to the contrary. Obama was impressed by the man’s letter. He changed his website. He tries to “extend the same presumption of good faith to others.”

Obama is extending that presumption of good faith to people like Rick Warren and, as much as I hate it, I guess I’m willing to see where it goes.

Call to Renewal Speech, Part 1 of 5

Call to Renewal Speech, Part 2 of 5

Call to Renewal Speech, Part 3 of 5

Call to Renewal Speech, Part 4 of 5

Call to Renewal Speech, Part 5 of 5

Inaugural Speech of Gene Robinson

Inaugural Speech of Joseph Lowery

Inaugural Speech of Rick Warren

Inaugural Speech of Barack Obama

American Anti-Government Sentiment and False Choices

September 22, 2008 By: Mel Category: Core, History, Politics

I work with many Europeans and Canadians who follow U.S. politics, particularly this election, and are positively flummoxed by the kind of anti-government rhetoric that we hear from conservatives.

Case in point – one of my co-workers from the the United Kingdom came into my office, flabbergasted by a quote he read by Ronald Reagan. The quote was “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” From his perspective, this is an insane statement. He is thinking of government in terms of what it does. He is thinking of education, health care, roads, laws and protection for the most vulnerable. He is thinking of governance.

But that, oft cited, Reagan quote is only the beginning of what he said. The rest of that quote from his 1981 inaugural address is:

From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself,then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?

Far be it for me to agree with Ronald Reagan on anything, but the man had a point. And it is a point that resonates with many, perhaps most, Americans. The majority of us are escapees from bad governments. Quakers and Puritans came escaping religious prosecution by their governments. Mexicans came fleeing from the Mexican Revolution and the parade of bad governments that came with it. German Jews fled the Third Reich and Soviet Jews fled Stalin. Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Argentinians, and Chileans fled the dirty wars. Haitians fled Papa Doc and Baby Doc.

More than a few of these people fled as disillusioned former supporters. Some Cuban refugees had been supporters of Castro and the Communist party, but were disillusioned by the poverty and political persecution that came later. Jews fleeing Russia were often former supporters of the revolution who came to find out that a dictatorship of the proletariat was worse than the aristocracy had been.

And then there are the people who found themselves under the rule of the United States government against their will. For Native Americans and African Americans, the United States government has historically been the mechanism by which they were oppressed, not an institution that protected them from harm. All of which is to say that we Americans come by our suspicion of government, and government power, honestly.

The problem with conservative rhetoric isn’t that it creates suspicion where there is no cause for it. There is plenty of cause for suspicion. If the conservatives truly wanted to limit the power of government representatives, I might actually support them. The problem with conservatives (and with anyone else who obtains power) is that they never limit their own power, once they have it. What we have ended up with is the worst possible outcome – a group of “representatives” abusing their enormous power and privilege, without even a modicum of the governance we need.

Americans don’t want their lives to be dictated to them. Conservatives have laid out the choice as being between a powerful government that takes your money and tells you what do, and a (theoretically) small government that tells you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Those are false choices, and not just because conservatives have consistently enlarged government.

The other choice is a real democracy, a direct democracy, one in which we all decide for ourselves how our money is spent, and one which understands that it is possible to have governance without relinquishing our power to people who will only abuse it. It requires us to actually invest ourselves in learning about and trying to solve the problems we face. It requires a commitment to work with and try to understand people who think differently. It requires people to do more than (maybe) vote once a year in an election between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Does McCain Want to Replace FEMA with Fedex?

September 19, 2008 By: Mel Category: Politics

After the appearances of McCain and Obama at the recent forum on service at Columbia University, most of the pundits were saying that there was not “a lot of contrast between these two candidates” (MSNBC) – or something to that effect. Not one person mentioned McCain’s comments about the private sector.

When talking about service programs, McCain took great pains to “emphasize…it doesn’t always have to be run by the government” and then he laid out his philosophy. “My philosophy is, lets not have government do things that the private sector can do or other organizations can do. That’s just my theory of government.”

Let’s break that statement down a little. Is there anything that the private sector couldn’t theoretically do? The Bush administration certainly doesn’t think so. They’ve been desperately trying to privatize social security. They’re giving billions of our tax money in no-bid contracts to well-connected private companies in Iraq. Intelligence is now largely in the hands of private contractors.

In fact, private contracts in general have exploded under the Bush administration and now account for 40 cents of every discretionary dollar in the federal budget. Think about that for a second. Your hard earned money is being taxed and then given to huge private companies. And I’m not talking about thousands of dollars, or millions. They are receiving billions. And what have those companies done with your money?

Blackwater “private security” was kicked out of Iraq after murdering civilians. STIS was given 320 million dollars for building an Iraqi power plant that was never built. Bricks of money were sent to Iraq and just disappeared into the ether. If you want to get really depressed, read Matt Taibbi’s article, The Great Iraq Swindle.

To the Reaganites (and as often as they mention Reagan it appears all Republicans are Reaganites) “government does not solve problems, it subsidizes them.” To these people, government is always bad, or at least worse than the alternatives. Apparently, they believe that the minute a person steps over the threshold of a government building to take a job, they are immediately evil. It’s the Invasion of the Body Snatchers theory of government. (Although that would explain a lot about Cheney.)

Republicans have been telling us that government is evil and inept since I was in diapers, and they have been doing a damn good job of proving their point. Perhaps the best example of this was during hurricane Katrina. FEMA was in shambles after the Bush administration was through gutting it, privatizing it, and appointing political fundraisers to head it.

When McCain was asked about the government’s role in disasters, like Katrina, he admitted that “the role of government obviously is the primary role,” but then he went on to say that “I don’t think frankly if Fedex or Target or any of these organizations had been in charge we wouldn’t have had a truck full of ice ending up in Maine.”

Would Fedex have done a better job than FEMA? They certainly couldn’t have done worse, but it is not because people who work for a private company are inherently better and more capable. It is because Fedex would never hire a CEO for disaster relief who had done nothing but run a horse track.

I understand peoples frustration with taxes, government, and bureaucracy. When I see the salaries of Halliburton executives, knowing that my tax money is paying that salary, it makes my skin crawl. But rather than just take the Republican bait about all government being bad and all taxes being evil, we need to start having sensible conversations about what government is and should be.

Of course, if we look at many on the left, their feelings about the private sector are a mirror of Republicans feelings about government. As much as I hate the Walmartinization of everything, not everyone who works for Walmart is automatically evil. And a new government agency for every problem isn’t the solution either, Democrats.

Is it that government corrupts or that power corrupts? Is there any organization that would be impervious to greed? Is the problem that we rely too much on “representatives” rather than direct democracy? I’d love to have a real conversation about that, rather than what passes for a conversation in our system, which goes like this:

Republican: They are just a tax and spend democrats.
Democrat: Republicans don’t care about you.