Questioning assumptions, left and right - We lead off with a pair of recent books, one striving desperately to undermine our confidence, and the other trying just as hard to snap us out of our fu...
23 hours ago
|Brave freedom-fighters attacking the Death Star|
Oklahoma state senator Constance Johnson introduced an amendment to that state's Personhood bill, SB 1433, that would essentially outlaw masturbation for men. Johnson's amendment proposed that the legislation include a provision that men ejaculating anywhere outside a woman's vagina be considered "an action against an unborn child."
Johnson wrote about the amendment in the Guardian:
My action to amend the so-called "Personhood" bill – SB 1433, introduced by Senator Brian Crain (Republican, Tulsa) – represents the culmination of my and many other Oklahomans' frustration regarding the ridiculousness of our reproductive policy initiatives in Oklahoma. I have received overwhelmingly positive responses from men and women in Oklahoma – and worldwide. The Personhood bill would potentially allow governmental intrusion into families' personal lives by policing what happens to a woman's eggs without any similar thought to what happens to a man's sperm.
For the past six months, the bishops [the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, USCCB] have complained very publicly that the administration is anti-Catholic and biased against religious groups because it refused to renew a contract with the group to provide services to victims of human trafficking. The bishops had been administering virtually all the federal money allocated for such services, about $3 million a year, doling it out to subcontractors who served victims all over the country. The USCCB had prohibited the contractors from using the federal funds to pay for staff time to counsel victims on contraception or abortion, or to refer them for such services. (Federal money can't be used to pay for abortions except in the most extreme instances, but it can pay for contraception.)
In 2009, the ACLU sued the Department of Health and Human Services, arguing that such rules violated constitutional prohibitions on mixing church and state. Last fall, while the case was still pending, the Obama administration decided not to renew the bishops' contract, largely because the bishops refused to provide those key reproductive health services that are frequently needed by victims of trafficking. The decision set off a firestorm in Congress, where House Republicans accused the administration of bid-rigging and violating the bishops' religious freedom during a marathon oversight hearing in December.
But on Friday, a federal judge in Massachusetts essentially validated the Obama administration's position, ruling in favor of the ACLU in the lawsuit over the contract. Even though the bishops no longer have the contract, they had joined with the ACLU in asking the judge to rule in the case to settle the constitutional issues. US District Judge Richard Stearns explained why the bishops were in the wrong. He wrote:
To insist that the government respect the separation of church and state is not to discriminate against religion; indeed, it promotes a respect for religion by refusing to single out any creed for official favor at the expense of all others…This case is about the limits of the government's ability to delegate to a religious institution the right to use taxpayer money to impose its beliefs on others (who may or may not share them).
Stearns also cited an earlier Supreme Court ruling that found that the framers "did not set up a system of government in which important, discretionary governmental powers would be delegated to or shared with religious institutions." The judge's ruling is potentially a big one: It calls into question the entire basis of the federal faith-based contracting initiative, implemented by George W. Bush, which gave tremendous power to groups like USCCB over taxpayer dollars. Stearns found, in fact, that it was USCCB that was making the decisions about how the federal anti-trafficking law should be administered—a job that properly rests with the government, not the church.
If you watched the season premiere of Mad Men on Sunday, you might be forgiven for mistaking one of its scenes of boys' club back-slapping for a GOP debate. Given their attitudes toward birth control and homosexuality, the Republicans seem to be stuck in the past.
And it's not just Democrats who've noticed…
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev tweaked Mitt Romney for his characterization of Russia as the "No. 1 geopolitical foe" of the United States, saying the comments did not reflect the current relationship between the two countries.
"It is very reminiscent of Hollywood and also of a certain phase in Russian-U.S. relations," Medvedev said at the end of the nuclear security summit in South Korea Tuesday…
"My first advice is to listen to reason when they formulate their positions. Reason never harmed a presidential candidate," Medvedev said. "My other advice is to check their watches from time to time: it is 2012, not the mid-1970s."
In post-Soviet Russia, Russia makes fun of you.
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|Barack Obama-Gun Control Conspiracy|
On a stage in a great auditorium stood four be-suited men, each vying for the hearts and votes of the people surrounding them.
And the people, they were angry.
“Government is too big,” they shouted. “We must make it smaller!”
And so the first man spoke up with great confidence. “I am the leader that you seek, for I am philosophically opposed to big government. I believe that government should do only that which the people cannot do for themselves. And, frankly, even that seems like a stretch.”
And the people nodded and murmured with approval, for that was exactly the type of philosophical bent they were seeking in a leader.
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|The Word - Dressed to Kill|
In introductions to the first lady before she addressed the crowd of about 85 people, De Niro quipped, "Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney. Now do you really think our country is ready for a white first lady?" According to a pool report from the evening, the line drew a roar of laughs, and De Niro added, "Too soon, right?"
Zimmerman told police he'd acted in self-defense. ABC News reports that he had wanted to be a police officer, and Sanford police didn't test him for drugs or alcohol after the shooting (such tests are standard practice in homicide investigations). He was licensed to carry his gun, and police initially told Martin's father that they hadn't pressed charges because Zimmerman was a criminal justice student with a "squeaky clean" record.
That wasn't entirely true, however; in 2005, Zimmerman was arrested for "resisting arrest with violence and battery on a law enforcement officer"; those charges were dropped. Media investigations and Martin family attorneys suggest that Zimmerman was a vigilante with "a false sense of authority" in search of young black men in his neighborhood. Police records show Zimmerman had called 911 a total of 46 times between Jan. 1 and the day he shot Martin. (Florida guidelines for licensed gun owners state: "A license to carry a concealed weapon does not make you a free-lance policeman.") ...
Zimmerman may have benefited from some of the broadest firearms and self-defense regulations in the nation. In 1987, then-Gov. Bob Martinez (R) signed Florida's concealed-carry provision into law, which "liberalized the restrictions that previously hindered the citizens of Florida from obtaining concealed weapons permits," according to one legal analyst. This trendsetting "shall-issue" statute triggered a wave of gun-carry laws in other states. (Critics said at the time that Florida would become "Dodge City.") Permit holders are also exempted from the mandatory state waiting period on handgun purchases.
Even though felons and other violent offenders are barred from getting a weapons permit, a 2007 investigation by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found that licenses had been mistakenly issued to 1,400 felons and hundreds more applicants with warrants, domestic abuse injunctions, or gun violations. (More than 410,000 Floridians have been issued concealed weapons permits.) Since then, Florida also passed a law permitting residents to keep guns in their cars at work, against employers' wishes. The state also nearly allowed guns on college campuses last year, until an influential Republican lawmaker fought the bill after his close friend's daughter was killed by an AK-47 brandished at a Florida State University fraternity party.
Florida also makes it easy to plead self-defense in a killing. Under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, the state in 2005 passed a broad "stand your ground" law, which allows Florida residents to use deadly force against a threat without attempting to back down from the situation. (More stringent self-defense laws state that gun owners have "a duty to retreat" before resorting to killing.) In championing the law, former NRA president and longtime Florida gun lobbyist Marion Hammer said: "Through time, in this country, what I like to call bleeding-heart criminal coddlers want you to give a criminal an even break, so that when you're attacked, you're supposed to turn around and run, rather than standing your ground and protecting yourself and your family and your property."
Again, the Sunshine State was the trendsetter: 17 states have since passed "stand your ground" laws, which critics call a "license to kill" or a "shoot first" law.
Data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis illustrates a key difference between Reagan’s first term and Obama’s: the pliancy of the Congresses they had to work with. Despite the fact that it was controlled by Democrats, Reagan’s Congress was ultimately accommodative, and the result was significant fiscal expansion, which likely helped bring down the unemployment rate. [Which definitely helped him win re-election, because Reagan wasn't wildly popular his first term, even after surviving an assassination attempt.]
Despite presiding over a Democratic Congress, Obama enjoyed no such co-operation. Serial GOP filibusters limited the extent to which he could use deficit spending and temporary tax cuts to hasten economic recovery. Republicans bucked historically bipartisan policies to thwart the president. And when they took over the House in 2011, Republicans pursued an austerity agenda, and, separately, spooked credit markets by taking the government to the brink of default. All of these factors, combined with contraction at the state and local levels, offset the stimulative policies Obama secured at the beginning of his term. And that prefigured a significantly slower labor market recovery than Reagan enjoyed.
A new Congressional Budget Office report has reignited the spin wars over President Obama’s budget, and Republicans are eagerly blasting articles to reporters about how the administration would explode deficits and debt if left to its own devices.
But this line of attack is based on a questionable premise, familiar to veterans of the past year’s budget wars.
The key to all of these stories is the CBO baseline. Officially, the budget analysts there use “current law” to gauge the expected impact of policy proposals, whether from the Hill or the White House. But under “current law” all the Bush tax cuts will expire, all of the sequestration spending cuts triggered by the Super Committee’s failure will take effect, and other parts of the budget will tighten automatically, in ways lawmakers and the president are determined to avoid. Relative to all of that austerity under current law, indeed, Obama’s budget blows up the budget. So too does every Republican budget proposal and every proposal put forward by influential outside fiscal policy groups.
CBO also uses an “alternative fiscal scenario” based largely on current policy. And the changes Obama proposes to current policy — the world we currently inhabit where the Bush tax cuts are still in effect, and sequestration hasn’t happened — accomplish one of fiscal policymakers’ key goals: reducing medium-term deficits and stabilizing the debt as a share of GDP over the next several years.
Climbing aboard the anti-birth control bandwagon, the Arizona Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-2 on Monday to endorse legislation that would: a) give employers the right to deny health insurance coverage to their employees for religious reasons; b) give employers the right to ask their employees whether their birth control prescriptions are for contraception or other purposes (hormone control, for example, or acne treatment).
As I argue in “The Reactionary Mind,” conservatism is dedicated to defending hierarchies of power against democratic movements from below, particularly in the so-called private spheres of the family and the workplace. Conservatism is a defense of what I call “the private life of power.” Less a protection of privacy or property in the abstract, as many conservatives and libertarians like to claim, conservatism is a defense of the rights of bosses and husbands/fathers.
So it’s no surprise that the chief agenda items of the GOP since its string of Tea Party victories in 2010 have been to roll back the rights of workers — not just in the public sector, as this piece by Gordon Lafer makes clear, but also in the private sector — and to roll back the reproductive rights of women, as this chart, which Mike Konczal discusses, makes clear. Often, it’s the same Tea Party-controlled states that are pushing both agendas at the same time.
What I hadn’t predicted was that the GOP would be able to come up with a program, in the form of this anti-birth control employer legislation we’re now seeing everywhere, that would combine both agenda items at the same time.
Focused as we are on the state, we often miss the fact that some of the most intense programs of political indoctrination have not been conducted by the government but have instead been outsourced to the private sector. While fewer than 200 men and women went to jail for their political beliefs during the McCarthy years, as many as two out of every five American workers were monitored for their political beliefs.
Recall this fascinating exchange between an American physician and Tocqueville during the latter’s travels to the United States in the early 1830s. Passing through Baltimore, Tocqueville asked the doctor why so many Americans pretended they were religious when they obviously had “numerous doubts on the subject of dogma.” The doctor replied that the clergy had a lot of power in America, as in Europe. But where the European clergy often acted through or with the help of the state, their American counterparts worked through the making and breaking of private careers.
If a minister, known for his piety, should declare that in his opinion a certain man was an unbeliever, the man’s career would almost certainly be broken. Another example: A doctor is skilful, but has no faith in the Christian religion. However, thanks to his abilities, he obtains a fine practice. No sooner is he introduced into the house than a zealous Christian, a minister or someone else, comes to see the father of the house and says: look out for this man. He will perhaps cure your children, but he will seduce your daughters, or your wife, he is an unbeliever. There, on the other hand, is Mr. So-and-So. As good a doctor as this man, he is at the same time religious. Believe me, trust the health of your family to him. Such counsel is almost always followed.
While all of us rightly value the Bill of Rights, it’s important to note that these amendments are limitations on government action. As a result, the tasks of political repression and coercion can often be — and are — simply outsourced to the private sector.
Let’s come back now to the birth control employer question. Thanks to the gains of the feminist movement and Griswold v. Connecticut, we now understand the Constitution to prohibit the government from imposing restrictions on access to birth control. Even most Republicans, I think, accept that. But there’s nothing in the Constitution to stop employers from refusing to provide health insurance coverage for birth control to their employees.
And here’s where the McCarthy specter becomes particularly troubling. Notice the second provision of the Arizona legislation: Employers will now have the right to question their employees about what they plan to do with their birth-control prescriptions. Not only is this a violation of the right to privacy — again, not a right our Constitution currently recognizes in the workplace — but it obviously can give employers the necessary information they need to fire an employee. If a women admits to using contraception in order to not get pregnant, there’s nothing in the Constitution to stop an anti-birth control employer from firing her.
During the McCarthy years, here were some of the questions employers asked their employees: What is your opinion of the Marshall Plan? What do you think about NATO? The Korean War? Reconciliation with the Soviet Union? These questions were directly related to U.S. foreign policy, the assumption being that Communist Party members or sympathizers would offer pro-Soviet answers to them (i.e., against NATO and the Korean War). But many of the questions were more domestic in nature: What do you think of civil rights? Do you own Paul Robeson records? What do you think about segregating the Red Cross blood supply? The Communist Party had taken strong positions on civil rights, including desegregating the Red Cross blood supply, and as one questioner put it, “The fact that a person believes in racial equality doesn’t prove that he’s a Communist, but it certainly makes you look twice, doesn’t it? You can’t get away from the fact that racial equality is part of the Communist line.”
The standard line from Republicans and some libertarians is that requiring religious or religion-related employers (like the hospitals and universities that are funded by the Catholic Church) to provide health insurance coverage for their employees’ birth control is a violation of their First Amendment rights to religious freedom. ...
There are many reasons to be wary of this line of argument, but the history of the Christian right provides perhaps the most important one of all. It’s often forgotten that one of the main catalysts for the rise of the Christian right was not school prayer or abortion but the defense of Southern private schools that were created in response to desegregation. By 1970, 400,000 white children were attending these “segregation academies.” States like Mississippi gave students tuition grants, and until the Nixon administration overturned the practice, the IRS gave the donors to these schools tax exemptions. And it was none other than Richard Viguerie, founder of the New Right and pioneer of its use of direct-mail tactics, who said that the attack on these public subsidies by the civil rights movement and liberal courts “was the spark that ignited the religious right’s involvement in real politics.”
According to historian Joseph Crespino, whose essay “Civil Rights and the Religious Right” in “Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s“ is must reading, the rise of segregation academies “was often timed exactly with the desegregation of formerly all-white public schools.” Even so, their advocates claimed to be defending religious minorities — and religious beliefs — rather than white supremacy. (Initially nonsectarian, most of these schools became evangelical over time.) Their cause, in other words, was freedom, not inequality; not the freedom of whites to associate with other whites (and thereby lord their status and power over blacks), as the previous generation of massive resisters had foolishly and openly admitted, but the freedom of believers to practice their own embattled religion. It was a shrewd transposition. In one fell swoop, the heirs of slaveholders became the descendants of persecuted Baptists, and Jim Crow a heresy the First Amendment was meant to protect.
So it is today. Rather than openly pursue their agenda of restricting the rights of women, the GOP claims to be defending the rights of religious dissenters. Instead of powerful employers — for that is what many of these Catholic hospitals and universities are — we have persecuted sects.
Knowing the history of the rise of the Christian right doesn’t resolve this debate, but it certainly does make you look twice, doesn’t it?
The ongoing circus act that is the Republican primaries are an excellent case study in personification, for the ringmaster of the moment is the very embodiment of all that atheists despise about religion. Rick Santorum is so ignorant, so bigoted and hypocritical, so authoritarian, theocratic, shortsighted, and so out of touch with facts and with reality in general, that if he did not happen to exist already, it would almost be necessary to invent him in order to serve as the poster child for everything that’s wrong with religion – especially when it gets mixed up with politics.
Rick Santorum hates nearly every societal advance that has been achieved since the Dark Ages – in short, everything that we refer to as “progress.” He hates the growing secularization of society and the implementing of laws based on things like equality, fairness, justice, and reason instead of blind deference to imaginary authority. He hates the empowerment of women and their having control over their own bodies instead of being merely meek and obedient baby-making machines. He even hates the Earth itself, which he looks at as some kind of vassal state to be plundered at will.
It would be easy to write off all of his fanatical policy positions as merely one asshole’s eccentricities, but that would be disingenuous, for he gets his ideas from a source far older and far more widely respected than any washed-up former senator from Pennsylvania could dream up on his own; his ideas come straight out of the Bible. ...
Republicans love talking about “freedom of religion,” and that’s fine – it’s clearly spelled out in the First Amendment of the Constitution. The problem is, to those on the far right who wield it like a machete, it only applies to their own religion. They’re all about prayer in schools so long as that means Christian prayer. They’re all about freedom of conscience when that means the freedom to deny medical care to those they disagree with. Furthermore, they live in a complete fantasyland regarding the founders of our nation and their intentions to maintain a “wall of separation between church and state” in order to have a government both free from religious control, and limited in its control over religion.
To atheists, people like Rick Santorum make it abundantly clear why religion has become a danger to free society and to the survival of the human species. There’s no point in beating around the burning bush in trying to identify the root of the problem. If you want to see what a religion-controlled government looks like, you only have to look to Afghanistan, or Iran, or Saudi Arabia, or Europe between the fall of the Roman Empire and the coming of the Enlightenment. We’ve seen it; we’ve been there, and it’s not pretty.
The "Paygo" policies of the 1990s proved to be pretty popular and effective. It's a basic idea -- in a nutshell, if policymakers want to increase spending or cut taxes, they have to figure out a way to pay for it. The point is to prevent increases to the deficit by telling officials to "pay as you go." It helped Clinton eliminate the deficit altogether and deliver some of the largest surpluses ever.
Republicans of the Bush era didn't care for the policy, and quickly scrapped it. The GOP couldn't pay for massive tax breaks, or two wars, or Medicare expansion, or No Child Left Behind, but they passed them all anyway, each time just throwing the costs onto the deficit. It's how Republicans managed to add $5 trillion to the national debt in just eight years.
Last year, Democrats brought Paygo back, though they waived it for emergency spending. When Dems took up health care reform, for example, they made sure it was paid for. Indeed, all of the major Democratic initiatives considered in this Congress, other than the Recovery Act, were careful not to add to the deficit at all. (When Senate Dems voted to bring back Paygo, literally all of the Republicans balked -- including the Republicans who claimed to support it.)
With Republicans apparently poised to regain power -- ironically while talking about fiscal responsibility -- the GOP is once again poised to scrap Paygo, but Boehner & Co. intend to replace it. The new plan is to go with something called "Cutgo."
And what's Cutgo all about? Instead of paying for new initiatives as they're considered, Republicans want to cut existing spending to offset the costs of any new spending.
If this sounds dubious to you, there's a good reason. Jon Chait explains:
Looking ahead to controlling Congress, Republicans again propose to eliminate Paygo, as they did under Bush. But this time they propose to replace it with a different rule, Cutgo, which would require that new spending be offset with spending cuts. That would indeed be an effective way to limit new spending programs. Of course, it would retain the ability to pass tax cuts with no offsets whatsoever. The decision once again reflects the core Republican belief that tax revenues do not need to bear any relationship to expenditures.
Right. This is precisely the kind of shell game one expects from politicians who don't take policy or fiscal responsibility seriously.
|The change in private sector jobs, by month. Red is Bush, blue Obama.|