Fixing the Economy: Beyond Bailouts and Stimuli

November 14, 2009

As the year draws nearer to an end, and as economic data about the last several months has recently been released, there has been a plethora of critiques about the various federal efforts to turn things around. Analysts are all over the spectrum, from those who are convinced that the federal actions have prevented the crisis from becoming much worse, to those who feel that the programs have been entirely inconsequential—except for ballooning the budget deficit, to those who declare that the federal recovery efforts have deepened and prolonged the slump. Who is right? Beats me. I’ve seen very compelling arguments on all sides. I can’t pretend to grasp all the economic minutia enough to know for certain, and I don’t think anyone truly can.

I very cautiously and reluctantly wanted to support the various economic policies which were part of the stimulus package. I’m never fond of corporate welfare, but many of the arguments seemed potentially valid. While hardly unanimous, there was a fairly broad consensus that action needed to be taken, with a plenty of Republicans and conservatives jumping on the bandwagon. Reagan economic advisor Martin Feldstein enthusiastically supported the stimulus bill, as did Tony Blankley during the several months during which the stimulus was being debated—albeit far more cautiously—on the NPR show Left, Right, and Center, just to name two. While Mike Huckabee’s warning is well-worth considering (“when someone is in a hurry to pass legislation, you’d better slow it down because the reason to hurry a law is rarely urgency to help the citizens, but urgency to get it passed before people find out what the heck it really is” ), it is conceivable that without quick action, the economy would have plummeted into chaos. As distasteful as the notion of bailing out these bloated corporations was, it might be that without those bailouts, the financial markets would have collapsed, taking the rest of the economy down with it. It is very possible that the building and infrastructure projects funded by the stimulus will ultimately put people to work, providing them with the money necessary to rebuild demand and jumpstart the economy, and provide us the long term-resources necessary for future success. Heaven knows that there is a great deal of critical infrastructure in serious need of upgrading and maintenance due to years of neglect.

All of that is in some sense beside the point. Not that the ever ballooning deficit is irrelevant; I respect the grave concerns which many people have about the deficit and it’s potentially disastrous consequences. But even if I grudgingly accepted that the stimulus might be a necessary evil, I never saw it as any more than a bandage, a stop-gap means with which to keep the economy on life support while the nation re-evaluated the way in which the our economic system is constructed, determining the roots of the problem and make the necessary fundamental changes to our economy and financial system to prevent this sort of catastrophe in the future.

While not terribly surprised, I’m bitterly disappointed on that count. Little has been done to get at the heart of the economic problems. Obama campaigned on change. How is this sort of corporate welfare any different than the bailouts promoted by his predecessor? How are his economic policies any different from the largely corporatist policies so in vogue with both parties since the Reagan Revolution? If we should be looking to the future rather than back to the Clinton era, as he not-infrequently implied when campaigning against Senator Clinton, why is his economic team lead by Clinton administration retreads who are perpetuating the same basic policies?

Libertarians like Ron Paul have pointed to the actions of the Federal Reserve as a primary cause of the economic turmoil, advocating it’s abolition. I’m not yet convinced their argument is entirely correct, but they make some very compelling points. What harm could it possibly do to conduct a thorough investigation of that institution to see if the criticisms have merit? What could possibly be wrong with holding that institution accountable through the rigorous audit proposed in HR 1207 and S 604?

Our financial system suffers from a bizarre concoction of overlapping and competing regulatory agencies (for a good investigative report on the subject, listen to “The Watchmen” from This American Life, 06-05-2009; or read the transcript). Rather than adding yet another regulatory layer, we should overhaul the entire regulation system. We need robust regulation, but it should be streamlined and consistent, so that the financial players cannot so easily find holes in the system. The walls separating the different sorts of financial services which were destroyed by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act must be rebuilt. And we must ensure that the resulting regulatory entities maintain the funding necessary to remain vital, and prevent the sort of defunding under the banner of “small government” which has render them impotent over the past few decades.

Many of the problems we face may have been caused in part by the very nature of the corporate structure. The corporations which were bailed out because they were “too big to fail” are bigger than ever. We should introduce mechanisms into the corporate charters which prevent them from becoming so large in the first place. Those already bloated to the point of reliance on the government should be broken up into smaller units. The legal principle of corporate personhood should be emphatically overturned. Originally, corporate charters were granted by the state in very specific circumstances, with very defined limits, and with provisions for public accountability. We should revisit that earlier form of incorporation, consider whether it is more appropriate for keeping these powerful entities in check.

I doubt there will ever be a better time for fundamental changes. The public must demand more than staggering amounts of debt and some rearranging of deck chairs in response to the economic crisis.


Utah Legislature and Fair Boundaries

September 16, 2009

A couple of years ago I wrote a post on the gerrymandering going on in Utah, and the need to reform the districting process to focus on maintaining the integrity of communities and on eliminating the overwhelming advantage of incumbents. This year a movement has arisen to attempt just that. Fair Boundaries is promoting a citizens initiative to establish an independent, non-partisan commission to offer districting plans with those goals in mind.

While there has been some fairly high-profile bi-partisan support (including from former Representative Jim Hansen, with whom I rarely agree), the response of Republicans in the legislature has been less than enthusiastic. They deliberately ignored the implications of the initiative and assumed two redundant redistricting processes to inflate the published cost of the initiative. Utah House Speaker Dave Clark has staunchly opposed the initiative, complaining that the initiative would invite lawsuits (from whom and on what grounds, Speaker Clark appears to be less forthcoming), and assuring Utahns that the current redistricting process “embraces the system of checks and balances,” —seemingly ignoring the fact that the very nature of gerrymandering insulates incumbents from checks. When a poll on his own website went in favor of the initiative, it mysteriously disappeared. And most recently, Republican legislators attending “Conservative Day” at the University of Utah forced organizers to eject a Fair Boundaries booth staffed by a former Huntsman intern.

One of the central traits of conservatism is a healthy skepticism of government. It is the very nature of government to seek to protect and expand its power, conservative theory correctly asserts. Government should therefore be viewed cautiously. It should be structured in such a way as to minimize the potential for any given government entities to abuse government power, and to subject government entities to accountability.

Except, these conservative government officials seem to believe, when it comes to them. We should just trust them, because they are above reproach. To consider any checks to potential abuse is to insult their integrity.

Just as they did when they attempted to install the school voucher system against the wishes of the citizens of Utah, these Republican legislative leaders show a disregard for the democratic process and their status as representatives of the people.

No system of districting can be perfect. But it is reasonable to try to create a check on the power of the legislature and their incumbents with an independent commission. On such an important issue—and one in which the legislature has such a clear conflict of interest—the public should be able to decide. If you are a registered Utah voter, please go to Fair Boundaries, find out where you can sign the petition*, and if possible, help collect the signatures necessary to put this initiative on the ballot in 2010.

*I currently have a petition available for signatures.

Separation of Church and State III: Making a State Incognizant of Religion

September 10, 2009

In order to preserve the freedom of conscience I’ve discussed in my previous posts, we must more rigorously maintain a firm wall of separation between Church and State. I believe the logical first step would be to remove religious invocations from government language, property, and practice. For instance:

The Pledge of Allegiance. I’m skeptical that the Pledge of Allegiance serves any meaningful purpose. Given its statist nature and socialist origin, I am perpetually perplexed that so many conservatives make such a fetish of it. But if the Pledge is to continue to be a significant part of our civic tradition, the reference to God (which is not an original part of the Pledge, but a 1954 insertion as part of the Cold War ideological battle against the explicitly-atheist communist world) should be eliminated. The government has no role making any declaration about whom its citizens may or may not believe their nation is under.

Government Oaths. Government has no place declaring in whose name government oaths should be sworn. Whether oaths of office or in court, those swearing people in should not include “so help you/me God” in the recitation. Individuals swearing those oaths are certainly well within their rights of expression to add personal invocations to the higher power of their choice, should they so chose. But making that invocation part of the administration of the oath is an inappropriate institutionalization of religious belief on the part of the state.

Civic Prayer. Government sponsored events, from Presidential inaugurations and Congressional sessions down to city council meetings and public school activities, should not involve prayer as part of the event. Participants who believe in a higher power have every right—indeed, a duty— to implore that power for wisdom and guidance prior to such events, and in their hearts during the proceedings. But government itself should not be establishing a given standard for belief through prayer as part of government events.

The Ten Commandments. Ten Commandments monuments should likewise be removed from any public property. Private individuals or organizations should have the right to erect religious inscriptions such as the Ten Commandments on their own private property. But government should not be giving endorsement or favor to any particular religious beliefs, and so neither religious inscriptions nor religious codes have any place in courthouses, schools, or (despite the recent Supreme Court ruling allowing government to show religious preference) public parks.

Motto and Currency. Government shouldn’t be making decrees regarding what divinities we may or may not trust. Religious inscriptions have only been used on U.S. money for the last century and a half, and then only intermittently. The idea that we should invoke God on our money, a medium regarding which Christ showed little concern, seems a bit bizarre to me; I find it ironic at best, and profane at worst. The official government motto was only adopted about the same time as the inclusion of God in the Pledge, and for the same reasons; I see no reason that the original de facto motto “E Pluribus Unum,” wouldn’t serve better and more closely represent the attitude of the founders in establishing the nation.

Education. Government operated education should not be concerned with promoting any religious tradition, whether a given tradition is the majority or not. It should not involve prayers, or scripture study for religious education, or the promotion of religious doctrine under the guise of “intelligent design.”

A ban on religious invocation would not mean that there can be nothing related to religion in the government sphere. There is a distinction between religious invocation and religious cultural references. For example, in the Department of Justice building there is a statue representing Lady Justice, a Greco-Roman personification of justice. No one would suggest this is state support of Classical polytheism or a literal invocation to a goddess of justice. The sculpture is a cultural reference to a period of history which strongly resonates with our own. Such cultural references are perfectly within the scope of secular institutions: Moses and Solomon are included in a frieze in the South Courtroom of the Supreme Court, along with Hammurabi, Solon, Confucius, Augustus, Muhammad, Charlemagne, and others representing historical “lawgivers.” The library of the university I attended had inscribed above the foyer “With all thy getting, get understanding.” While this is a biblical passage, it is not an invocation of God, but rather a literary reference relevant to the purpose of a library. A number of cities in Massachusetts and in Utah have statues of historical religious leaders because those particular religious leaders played important roles in the history of those states. The Ten Commandments, on the other hand, have no practical relevance to U.S. history, government, or law (the Ten Commandments are hardly the foundation for U.S. law, as some Christian conservatives like to contend; the nation’s jurisprudence owes far more to the Anglo-Saxon folkmoots, Roman legal codification, and the law code of Hammurabi). Their only purpose on public property is to grant a special reverence to one particular religious tradition.

There will, of course, be those who misinterpret the absence of God from government platform as a repudiation of God. This critique is myopic. The absence of positive affirmations of God in our oaths or pledges or currency or buildings would hardly be a denial of the existence of God or a repudiation of religion. It would simply reflect the truth that it is up to us as free individuals to make our own determination about the nature of the divine and to promote those beliefs on their own merits rather than through government support. It would recognize that religion can be a powerful force for good for individuals and society only when religion is spread through personal conviction and not government prescription.

In some ways one might think these items to be somewhat superficial and trivial. Words inscribed on our money or casually recited in a pledge have very little real-world impact on our lives. I don’t think we can discount ways in which these official government appeals and endorsements exert pressure on society to conform—that is, after all, why certain entities have pressed for such appeals and endorsements in the first place. furthermore, the government acknowledgment and sanction of religion which these invocations represent gives government tacit license to further promote, prefer, and define religion in the public sphere. Many groups would like to further intermingle Church and State; the Constitution Party is perhaps most explicit in stating that it’s goal is to “restore American jurisprudence to its Biblical foundations,” and erroneously claiming that “The U.S. Constitution established a Republic rooted in Biblical law,” but many other groups share the same sentiment and desire to infringe upon true freedom of conscience. By drawing a strong line at these seemingly minor transgressions on freedom of conscience, we make it easier to resist the more hazardous infraction: the legislative codification of religious belief and practice.



  • Separation of Church and State IV: Religious and Moral Legislation

Bob Aagard: Canada Scares and a Personal Story About Health Care Reform

August 7, 2009

All sorts of horror stories are going around the conservative media and blogosphere right now. Bob on The World According to Me shares his own experience with US health care, which adds a little context to the topic.

Obama: Let the Sunlight In!

August 5, 2009

It appears to be an inherent risk of the presidential office that its occupants prefer to avoid public accountability for their actions. President Eisenhower coined the term “executive privilege” to avoid revealing government information to Congress and the public. Bill Moyers recalled that President Johnson so despised the ramifications of the Freedom of Information Act that “LBJ had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the signing ceremony,” and threatened a pocket veto. Nixon was notoriously secretive, often deliberately keeping members of his administration out of the loop, and vigorously opposed the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the release of the white house papers and recordings. The policy of the Reagan administration was to classify information at the highest level possible (a reversal of Carter’s policy to classify information as low as possible). Reagan also issued Executive Order 12356, increasing the longevity of information classification, and advocated the Freedom of Information Reform Act of 1986, restricting the original FOIA. While some administrations have been more forthcoming than those—the Carter and Clinton administrations both acknowledged to have taken steps towards greater transparency and access—Phillip Melanson notes in Secrecy Wars: National Security, Privacy, and the Publics Right to Know that virtually all presidential administrations have resisted full compliance with the FOIA and public accountability.

The recent Bush administrations hardly broke that mold. Denying the public information on key meetings on energy policy in which energy industry executives participated; covering up executive actions regarding detention, torture, and public wiretapping; attempting to keep presidential records private indefinitely with Executive Order 13233; administration memoranda encouraging bureaucratic obstruction to confound FOIA requests; a vice president who insisted he was exempt from accountability because he supposedly outside all three branches of government: They seemed to have a absolute passion for secrecy (excepting, of course, when it came to releasing classified identities for political purposes)—not particularly surprising given the illicit nature of their agenda.

Obama made quite a point of transparency during his presidential campaign, as a contrast to the Bush administration. Early in his administration Obama issued a memorandum about “transparency, public participation, and collaboration.” During his short term in office, is he on track to produce the change he promised?

Early results are not encouraging. I suppose one might forgive the administration for declining to release the FBI interview with Dick Cheney regarding the Valerie Plame incident. While I’d prefer to see the key members of the previous administration held to full account for their misdeeds, perhaps Obama is sincerely trying to avoid the appearance of partisanship by protecting Cheney from “embarrassment,” or believes that a Gerald Ford strategy of letting bygones be bygones and moving on is the best way for the nation to get over the past eight years.

But the Obama administration has also adopted the Bush administration’s policy on secret wiretapping. In a strange case of deja vu, Obama is refusing to release information on administration an energy policy meeting with coal executives. And most recently, he has denied an FOIA request for information related to meetings with health care industry executives. Obama’s repeated rebuff of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and his general reticence to live up to his memorandum show a distressing lack of concern or understanding for the change we needed.

Whether you take Obama to be the messiah or a commie-muslim-criminal mastermind is irrelevant. Government secrecy is dangerous to the nation irrespective of which party or what person is in power. Sunlight is the best protection against even the potential for corruption. Our democratic republic can only function effectively to the extent that the public has access to the data necessary to make informed judgments and hold our government representatives accountable. If Obama thinks we should simply trust him because of his integrity and of his commitment to change, then he is not the agent of change he claims to be.

Rob Bishop: “The Plane! The Plane!”

July 31, 2009

Utah representative Rob Bishop proudly insists that he is a fiscal conservative. He rejects “massive government spending on bloated federal programs that puts our country deeper into debt.” Judging from his statement on the floor of the House in 2006, one might suppose he was determined to critically review government programs and spending based on their effectiveness, working to ax those which didn’t pass muster.

Except, seemingly, when it comes to glamorous military equipment such as the F-22.

No, Rob Bishop is proud to have played a role in saving the F-22, a weapon which is many times as expensive as the fighter it is supposed to replace, requires far more frequent and costly maintenance, is vulnerable to rain, and which appears completely unqualified for the sorts of warfare in which we seem likely to be engaged in the future; after all it has never flown a mission in Iraq or Afghanistan during its four years of service. Does anyone really expect the sort of full-scale conflict with another large, military power in which these flashy fighters might shine to come around in the foreseeable future? (see R. Jeffrey Smith, “Premier U.S. Fighter Jet Has Major Shortcomings,” The Washington Post, and Jeff Huber, “Sticker Shock and Awe,” The American Conservative).

Nevermind any critical analysis of the program. Bishop is apparently willing to overlook this expensive government program and it’s questionable impact on national defense because, as Bishop’s website proudly announced, his defense of the F-22 “scored some significant victories for Utah’s military installations and personnel.”

In other words, it’s about pork, a game which the military-industrial complex has become experts at playing with Congress (see the insightful documentary Why We Fight).

We can’t have government “waste” on energy efficiency, environmental protection, or health care. We must reserve that instead for the war-toys which set warhawk hearts aflutter and keep people employed in production of dubious value. Just keep in mind the warning of President Eisenhower:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron (“A Chance for Peace,” American Society of Newspaper Editors; April 16, 1953).

Separation of Church and State II: Necessary for the Protection of Both

July 4, 2009

Some time ago, I wrote a post which I intended to be the first in a series on the separation of Church and State, “Separation of Church and State: A Founding Principle.” I had intended to shortly continue the series, but events required me to scale back my blogging time and postpone the sequel. Today seems a perfect day to resume the series.

Religious conservatives contemporary to Jefferson and Madison assaulted the newborn Constitution as Godless, and persistently accused the two politicians of being atheists throughout their careers. To these religious conservatives a “wall of separation” between the Church and State was nothing less than a scheme to undermine religion. They could hardly have been more wrong. While not conventionally religious, the letters and works of the two men reveal them to be profoundly spiritual people. Like modern religious conservatives who level similar charges against entities such as the ACLU, People for the American Way, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, those religious conservatives manifested a remarkable inability to grasp the difference between advocating liberty in religious matters and attempting to extinguish religion. And like their modern counterparts, they failed to understand that strict separation between state and religion is actually essential for keeping the flames of religion burning.

Within the text of Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, these thinkers were very insistent upon that point. They would have been rather skeptical of Mitt Romney’s claim that “Freedom requires religion.” They were well aware that for hundreds of years people have been imprisoned, tortured, and slaughtered in the name of religion. Religion has been a force in shackling men at least as often as liberating them, particularly when associated with the state. Under those conditions, it seeks to use the force of government to cement its temporal power, stifling new ideas while neglecting the persuasion which is the root of any effectual religion. At the same time, government when united with religion seeks to appropriate the moral authority of its partner, manipulating the modes of religion to promote its own agenda, as we experienced with the Bush administration in their Office of Faith-Based Initiatives.

Hardly trying to purge God from the nation, these founding fathers (and their modern separationist counterparts) were trying to create an environment in which religion could flourish. A level playing field allows any moral sentiment the opportunity to make its case, to rise or fall on its own merits. They sought a society in which organizations would be forced to rely on exhortation rather than coercion to promote and defend their beliefs; in which dogma could be challenged and, if found lacking, cast aside. They hoped for a society in which new ideas and new systems of belief—such as the LDS faith—could be explored and, if they drew people through their fruit, take root and blossom. When government either tries to play a role in favoring religious beliefs and practices, or neglects its duty to protect the freedom of conscience which is the root of religious freedom, government hinders that process. Religion as a result becomes superficial and hollow, a matter of compulsion rather than faith. A purely secular, areligious government, one entirely indifferent to religion, best enables religion to achieve its full spiritual potency.

Of all people we in the LDS faith should understand the importance of freedom of conscience. We are taught that the Lord raised up this nation as a land of liberty in order to restore his Gospel where it might not be smothered by the oppression of contemporary religious orthodoxy. The Church suffered great hardship and persecution because the freedom of conscience which Jefferson and Madison favored was so imperfectly protected.

This principle is part of the Church canon, in the Eleventh Article of Faith

We claim the privilege of worshiping Almight God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

D&C 134:4-5 & 9-10 makes the Gospel’s position even more clear on the subject.

We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul.

We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments; and that sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every citizen thus protected, and should be punished accordingly; and that all governments have a right to enact such laws as in their own judgments are best calculated to secure the public interest; at the same time, however, holding sacred the freedom of conscience

…We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied.

We believe that all religious societies have a right to deal with their members for disorderly conduct, according to the rules and regulations of such societies; provided that such dealings be for fellowship and good standing; but we do not believe that any religious society has authority to try men on the right of property or life, to take from them this world’s goods, or to put them in jeopardy of either life or limb, or to inflict any physical punishment upon them. They can only excommunicate them from their society, and withdraw from them their fellowship (emphasis added).

In seeking to instill in government a systematic predisposition towards religion, religious conservatives typically point to the such patriots as George Washington, who spoke emphatically of the importance of religion for the nation in such works as his farewell address. These conservatives balk at the idea of a secular state, protesting that such a state betrays Washington’s vision by favoring atheism. They are wrong. A firm separation of Church and State does not encourage or aid atheism over any other belief. It merely allows atheists the same freedom to follow the dictates of their conscience as anyone else. It grants atheism the same opportunity to make its case as any theology. And Atheists should unquestionably have that right. Freedom of conscience is a lie, the lie of toleration, if it is proffered only to theistic beliefs. Do we as Christians so lack confidence in the persuasive power of the doctrines of Christ as to require atheism repressed by the government, indirectly or otherwise?

Meaningful religion needs no government sanction or support to sustain itself. In Jefferson’s notes for the debate on Virginia’s disestablishment, he outlined such an argument.

Christianity flourished three-hundred years without establishments. Soon as established, decline from purity. Betrays want of confidence in doctrines of church to suspect that reason or intrinsic excellence insufficient without secular prop (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Julian Boyd editor, vol. 1 p.538-539).

Yes, Washington and other prominent founders expected the United States of America to be a religious nation. But that brings us to the second sense of the phrase “Religious (or Christian) Nation,” one in which the people of the nation upholds Christian virtue by free choice, as dictated by one’s conscience. Jefferson and Madison expected true religion to flourish in the U.S.—a religion which conventional Christians then and now would hardly endorse, but a religion nonetheless—by virtue of its power to touch the hearts of those who freely experiment upon its claims, and the persuasion of those who have experienced its goodness in their lives. They expected religion to be refined and improved through the process of free inquiry and exploration. A Christian (or religious) nation in the first sense of the word—in which government takes a hand in promoting religion, is directly antithetical to that desire. By increasingly seeking to intermingle the two, pursuing government favor for their own religious beliefs, religious conservatives are impeding the very goals they supposedly hope to accomplish. If they would follow Madison and Jefferson in strengthening the wall between the two, they could better ensure that this nation protected the religious and personal liberties we celebrate today.




  • Separation of Church and State IV: Religious and Moral Legislation

Obama and the Iranian Election

June 26, 2009

Obama has been getting quite a bit of flack for the way he has handled the recent Iranian election fiasco. From the inflammatory neocon pundits like Limbaugh, Hannity, and Coulter, to the Republican politicians like Dana Rohrabacher, Richard Perle, Mitt Romney, Lindsey Graham, Charles Grassley, and John McCain are angry that Obama has not been more aggressive in responding to the Iranian tragedy. Even hawkish Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden think that the president should be more forceful in his reaction.

Why? What purpose would it serve? No one has directly suggested military intervention, or even new economic sanctions. They simply seem to want the President to be more forceful in condemning the election results and the government crackdown, or in expressing support for the dissidents. Do these people think that simply by uttering his disapproval, Obama can undo the election? “If Obama would only disapprovingly shake his finger at them, they’d learn they’re lesson!” Have they caught Obamania that much?

While it is extremely unlikely to help the situation, stern words could make things worse. As Obama himself mentioned in his recent press conference, Iran’s government would have no hesitation to play up any US rhetoric for the extremist crowd which is their base. Worse, saber rattling by its very nature implies the potential for drawing that saber. Such a stance might well escalate and draw the nation into yet another Middle Eastern military fiasco. Yet if he refused to back his words with deeds, Obama would look weak and ineffectual.

(I suppose this might well be the strategy of the neocons attempting to goad Obama into a more belligerent stance; either they get the further interventionism they desire in order to create their “New American Century,” or they get the president to make himself look weak.)

In 1991, fresh of his victory in the first Gulf War, President H.W. Bush heartily endorsed dissident factions in Iraq and encouraged the overthrow of the Hussein regime. Emboldened by the implied support of the US, the Kurds and Shia began a revolt. The military support which they assumed backed Bush’s words never came. The revolt failed, and the dissidents were slaughtered.

Is it worth the risk of seeing the same thing in Iran just to satisfy the egos of those who want to see the US play John Wayne?

My thoughts, wishes, and prayers are with these brave Iranian protesters who are fighting for a nation which respects the will of the people and individual rights. I’m inspired, as I’ve been by the “Tank Man” and others at Tiananmen Square, by their courage and determination. But I am no less suspicious of the path of interventionism in Iran than I’ve been in Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other nation. We can not hope to impose democracy from without. We have not the capacity, especially now. Nor is it the role of the US to play nanny to the rest of the world. Obama has made essentially the right decision in this situation. Let’s hope that Obama is able to continue to ignore the taunting of the militarists, and that the Iranians are able to find the power within themselves to liberate themselves.

Homosexual Marriage and Social Engineering

May 28, 2009

The California Supreme Court has sustained the violation of freedom of conscience by upholding Proposition 8. Not terribly surprising, really. It seemed to me that the grounds on which Prop 8 was being challenged (that the proposition had not been properly pursued) was a dubious one; I wonder if the more promising route would be to challenge it as a violation of Constitutionally protected freedom of religion. Then again, I’m no lawyer, nor can I claim to know the minutia of the case.

A number of my conservative associates have proclaimed this a triumph of traditional values over “social engineering.” The term “social engineering” has long been a boogieman in the lexicon of conservatives. Ironically, while social engineering is indeed at the root of Proposition 8 and other marriage-restriction laws, these conservatives are holding the wrong end of the stick this time.

Any use of government incentive or favor to influence social norms and behavior qualifies as social engineering (any law could technically be considered an attempt to influence social behavior, but I think all sides would agree that laws specifically designed to protect property rights or to restrict violence do not qualify as social engineering). Conservatives are absolutely right that legislation to encourage liberal social change, such as legislation to promote racial integration or provide more opportunities for racial and gender equality, are examples of social engineering. What they pointedly ignore is that legislation to encourage and strengthen traditional social patterns are no less examples of social engineering. Thus homosexual marriage bans—laws designed to use government incentive and controls to restrain a change in social norms which is occurring in some segments of society—are also social engineering. Likewise, government policies implemented to use government incentives to restrain the rising tide of divorce are also social engineering.

In other words, conservatives who endorse homosexual marriage bans do not in truth oppose social engineering, but rather only liberal ends to which social engineering might be employed. They are perfectly willing to pursue social engineering when it suits their ends. If they don’t approve of social engineering on principle, they should stop trying to engineer homosexuals and freedom of conscience out of existence.

Combatants for Peace Tour

March 17, 2009

From Sojourners:

Ishmael and Isaac, brothers of the same father and different mothers, together buried their father Abraham. Esau and Jacob, twin brother and rivals, reconciled. When they met after many years, Jacob said: “for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor” (Genesis 33:10).

These stories tell of rival brothers, enemy brothers, who made peace. Every human conflict is a conflict between kin. We are all daughters and sons of the same Creator God. God created humankind in God’s own image and likeness. Thus, every human being carries the imago dei, the image of God. When we kill a human being, we are killing an image of God. When we lose sight of this, we lose clarity. We lose focus. We fall into deception and obscurity, into a dangerous shadow place where we understand the Other as altogether Other who may be, or ought to be, expelled or killed. We lose sight of their humanity. And the moment we do this, we forfeit a measure of our own.

Bassam Aramin is a Palestinian fighter who served seven years in jail for planning an attack on Israeli soldiers. When he left jail, he decided to dedicate himself to nonviolent solutions to the Israel/Palestine conflict. January 16, 2007, his 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was walking home from school with her friends in Anata near a border crossing. When an Israeli Border Patrol opened fire, a bullet found the back of Abir’s head. Three days later she was dead.

Yaniv Rashef was an Israeli soldier in the sabotage unit. He lives within range of missiles fired from Gaza. He has joined with Bassam Aramin in a group of about 600 former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters—Combatants for Peace—to work together for peace in Israel/Palestine. They are working together to build playgrounds (“Palestinian and Israeli Former Fighters Unite for Peace, Valerie Elverton Dixon“.

Too bad the tour is only along the East Coast. I’d love to see it. Hearing stories like these gives me some hope that that region might someday find peace.