Sauce for the Goose, Sauce for the Gander

I love political theater.

First: In the wake of the Supreme Court’s poorly-thought-out Hobby Lobby decision, the Satanic Temple–based in New York, but evidently with congregations (covens?) elsewhere around the country–has sued for an exemption from “informed consent” laws.

According to ABC, Satanists believe in a woman’s right to get an abortion without having to listen to information its members see (correctly) as non-scientific. This is rooted in the group’s belief in a “scientific understanding of the world,” according to the press release.

Fair is fair–if devout Christian employers can’t be required to abide by neutral laws requiring them to provide their employees with birth control coverage, “devout” Satanists shouldn’t have to abide by laws that violate their beliefs.

Second: Texas has been the epicenter of “open carry” braggadocio. A group of inventive women–apparently tired of running into paranoid jerks carrying long guns on the streets and into the local Target–decided to make the point that just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

And it’s apparently legal to go topless in Austin, Texas.

So when Open Carry Texas did one of its many open-carry “events,” the gun nuts were met with middle aged, almost-bare-naked ladies shouting “Boobs for peace!” (One of them also carried a sign reading “You realize that everyone thinks you’re overcompensating for your teeny tiny ‘gun,’ right?”)

Goose, meet gander…..


Suing the Anti-Christ

Most lawyers I know–Republican and Democrat alike–are incredulous at the decision of GOP House members to bring a lawsuit against the President.  There is simply no legal or factual basis for such a suit, and it is highly unlikely to survive even minimal judicial scrutiny. Even if the allegations against President Obama were all true, the remedy would be political, not judicial.

(There is, of course, the added irony of the GOP’s requested remedy–immediate implementation of a provision of the Affordable Care Act that they tried repeatedly to eliminate. Say what?)

Most commentators have looked at the incoherence and the bluster, and have concluded–reasonably enough–that the whole thing is simply an effort to placate and motivate an increasingly rabid base. And while I’m sure that’s true, it begs the question: why the intense hatred of this President? Why the insistence that he’s a gay Muslim born in Kenya who is intent on destroying the “real” America?

Even Bush and Clinton haters didn’t engage in these levels of fantasy and invective. Of course, Bush and Clinton were white, and the racist component of Obama hatred is hard to miss, but it doesn’t explain everything. I think a recent article from the Daily Beast, by Jack Schwartz, sheds a good deal of light on the phenomenon with which we are dealing.

The mark of a national political party in a democracy is its pluralistic quality, i.e. the ability to be inclusive enough to appeal to the broadest number of voters who may have differing interests on a variety of issues. While it may stand for certain basic principles, a party is often flexible in applying them, as are its representatives in fulfilling them. Despite the heated rhetoric of elections and the bombast of elected representatives, they generally seek consensus with the minority in order to achieve their legislative goals.

But when religion is thrown into the mix, all that is lost. Religion here doesn’t mean theology but a distinct belief system which, in totality, provides basic answers regarding how to live one’s life, how society should function, how to deal with social and political issues, what is right and wrong, who should lead us, and who should not. It does so in ways that fulfill deep-seated emotional needs that, at their profoundest level, are devotional. Given the confusions of a secular world being rapidly transformed by technology, demography, and globalization, this movement has assumed a spiritual aspect whose adepts have undergone a religious experience which, if not in name, then in virtually every other aspect, can be considered a faith.

Religions have doctrines, to which the faithful must subscribe. Nonbelievers aren’t just folks with whom you disagree, they’re heretics. (As Schwartz notes, heretics are primaried only because they can’t be burned at the stake.) And Obama? He’s the Anti-Christ. The Devil.

Allowing Obama to win anything–a court case, a legislative victory, an election–is blasphemy. In the minds of the faithful (if “minds” is the right word), Obama’s continued presence in the White House is the continued triumph of evil.

This is all quite insane, of course. Unfortunately, it’s an accurate description of what the “base” of today’s GOP believes–a description of the beast that party leadership must continually feed in order to stay in power.

Only a massive political loss will lance this boil. If Democrats and sane Republicans don’t turn out in November, the crazy–and the attendant dysfunction– will just continue.

Inequality–a Rumination

Over at Political Animal, David Atkins has reported on another recent, depressing study of the economic status of American families; as he notes,

Economic inequality in the United States has been receiving a lot of attention. But it’s not merely an issue of the rich getting richer. The typical American household has been getting poorer, too.

Atkins discussed the dimensions and effects of the steady escalation of this division between rich and poor Americans, and his analysis is definitely worth a read. But I had just completed a 15-hour drive back from the beach when I read his post, and it made me think about a companion question, one I often ponder when–as on this drive through back roads, trying to avoid congestion–the landscape shows me a kind of American life that I can’t imagine living.

That certainly isn’t a moral judgment; it isn’t even an aesthetic one. It’s simply recognition that the lives of folks who inhabit the very small towns, or who live in the middle of broad fields miles from a grocery store or corner bar, live a life unfathomably different from my downtown urban neighborhood existence. I can’t help wondering how my opinions on matters of politics and policy would differ if I lived in a small house or converted double-wide on a lightly-traveled county road. Who would I talk to? Would we even discuss political issues beyond the most local concerns? Where would I get my civic information? Would I think of myself as a “have not,” or would I be satisfied with my situation? Would isolation bother me? What would I read, and why would I choose to read it?

Surely so incredibly different a life would have created an incredibly different me.

Us “city folks” who have trouble understanding why people don’t see things that seem so glaringly obvious to us need to take a drive across the back roads of rural America from time to time. Despite the country’s increasing urbanization, a lot of our fellow-citizens still live there.

I don’t really know where their “there” is. But then, I imagine they don’t relate very well to my life experience, either. There’s no right or wrong here–just difference.

The mutual incomprehension probably explains a lot, but it makes communication pretty tough.

Reason–for Hope

After yesterday’s post went up on Facebook, a colleague sent me a link to an absolutely fascinating dialogue between the author of Plato at the Googleplex, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and her husband, Steven Pinker. It was originally a Ted Talk, and it has been rendered as a very clever cartoon.

I rarely watch videos that are longer than a few minutes, and this one is 15 minutes, but it is a brilliant defense of reason–something we in this unreasonable age need rather badly–and the role reason has played in civilizing and improving human society.

Watch it!

An Epiphany…

My best friend is ABD in philosophy. This means–among other things– that we have had some weird discussions along the way, especially when she was still in graduate school (How do we know that tree is really a tree?), but by and large, it has benefitted me immensely; she’s introduced me to material I  wouldn’t have read otherwise and required me to defend my more half-baked ideas.

So when she recommends a book, I buy it. Most recently, the recommendation was Plato at the Googleplex, which–after a pretty eye-glazing introduction–has proved to be a delightful modern-day take on Platonic dialogues.

The contemporary relevance of one passage in particular really struck me, because it revolved around the central question with which every society must grapple: who decides? Who gets to make the rules, and how do would-be rulers defend their right to do so?

Plato says philosophers should rule. “The one difference is that [philosophers] are able to discover, through the special talents and training that are theirs, what the facts are [about the way people should live]. So they are not imposing their personal will on others, any more than mathematicians are imposing their wills on others by informing non-mathmeticians what the mathematical truths are. They are simply sharing their knowledge with others, knowledge that others cannot access for themselves, lacking the requisite cognitive skills, a matter of both talent and training. This seems to me no more unfair than that the mathematically intelligent share their knowledge of mathematics with the mathematically unintelligent.”

I have always wondered why people–mostly but not exclusively religious people– feel entitled to tell the rest of us how to live, who to love, when and whether to procreate, and why they see themselves as victims when government won’t order us to follow their dictates. How is it they don’t recognize this as chutzpah? Why can’t they live and let live?

This passage lays bare the lack of self-awareness and immense arrogance that motivates zealots and theocrats.

That arrogance is why I’ve always preferred Aristotle–who evaluated social arrangements based upon their ability to facilitate human flourishing– to Plato.

There is something chilling about the contemporary (self-styled) philosopher-kings who are quite sure that they know what morality looks like, and how others should live their lives. These scolds aren’t just sharing insights that have had meaning for them, in hopes that others will find them persuasive. They aren’t sharing at all–they are imposing, secure in their conviction that they know, and if you disagree, you are wrong. End of discussion.

Plato got one thing very wrong. Morality isn’t like math.