Monday, August 30, 2010

Taking Sides

I'm no fan of Islam—far from it, in fact. In a world that has been plagued by religious violence and repression for roughly as long as religion has existed, Islam stands out as the worst offender, and that scares the hell out of me.

It's a religion whose followers are responsible for stonings,[1] female genital mutilation, and suicide bombings. It's the dominant religion in nearly every country that still criminalizes homosexuality. Islamic countries are among the most hostile to press freedom and Internet freedom. Islamic countries are among the leading perpetrators of violence against women, terrorism, war, and, really, just about any form of religion-fueled atrocity going on in the world today.

In other words, it's a religion I'd really prefer not to have to defend.

And I wouldn't, if we could all just show some basic respect for freedom of religion and freedom of expression and all those other rights that exist for the sole purpose of protecting groups and ideas that are unpopular. And if we all had the decency to refrain from condemning innocent people for the crimes of others.

But, as a society, we don't always show that kind of respect and decency. A lot of us find this upsetting, so we speak out, and this is the thanks we get for being patriotic, freedom-loving Americans:
America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization. Sadly, too many of our elites are the willing apologists for those who would destroy them if they could.
Yes, Mr. Gingrich, I'm a willing apologist for those who, given the opportunity, would destroy America. I've carefully examined all the information and weighed the relative merits of the opposing arguments, and, I'm sad to say, it's time to admit defeat and hand over the keys. Oh well, America had a good run.

Seriously though, how should I respond to that? I'm sick of giving disclaimers ("Just because I believe X doesn't mean I believe Y, as should be obvious because Y is stupid and do I look like I'm stupid?").[2] I suppose I could roll my eyes and stop listening, but then I'd have nothing to complain about.

I don't know if this is just a natural byproduct of conservative fear-mongering, or a brilliant plan to force political opponents to publicly support unfavorable causes, but either way, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Carl Paladino, and whoever else have seemingly done the impossible. They've made every effort to frame the participants in a debate as, on one side, average Americans, and, on the other, extremist Muslims, and, you know what? I'd much rather side with the Muslims.[3]

1. And not back in the dark ages when everybody was doing it; I'm talking about this freaking year.
2. See also: "No, I don't think children are worse off with married, opposite-sex parents," "no, I don't think widespread marijuana use is good for society," and "that's ridiculous, of course I support the troops."
3. No, just because I disagree with Newt and other conservatives on this particular issue doesn't mean I equate them with Muslim extremists in general, as should be obvious because that would be stupid and do I look like I'm stupid?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Country Music Round-Up

I like country music. I mean, I love Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and the rest of the "Outlaw" movement (and who doesn't?), but I like the radio-friendly Nashville stuff too. While I've often disguised this broader appreciation as a desire to "keep track of what the conservatives are up to," it's more sincere than that. Country, perhaps more than any other popular musical style, is about the words—songs tend to have clear messages, and lyrical substance is valued over artsiness and technical skill.

Still, in large part because of that ethos, country remains an extremely useful barometer for what the conservatives are up to. Toward that end, let's see what we can learn from the current Billboard chart:

Luke Bryan: "Rain is a Good Thing"
My daddy spent his life lookin' up at the sky
He'd cuss, kick the dust, sayin' son it's way too dry
It clouds up in the city, the weather man complains
But where I come from, rain is a good thing
The classic "country folk live like this; city folk live like that" song. The point, invariably, is that city folk are so caught up in their busy urban lifestyles that they lose track of what's really important. In this case, it's agriculture, but the larger question is always the same—what else do city-dwellers not understand about life in rural America? Could this narrow-minded hostility toward precipitation also extend to manual labor? Family values? Mud, and the occasional muddiness of one's vehicle, clothes, and other possessions?

And lest we get the impression that city folk have a monopoly on good times, the chorus sets us straight:
Rain makes corn, corn makes whiskey
Whiskey makes my baby feel a little frisky

Alan Jackson: "Hard Hat and a Hammer"
Average Joe, average pay
Same ol' end and same ol' day

But there's nothing wrong with a hard hat and a hammer
Kind of glue that sticks this world together
Hands of steel and cradle of the Promised Land
God bless the working man
This song is a less divisive variation on the same theme, and it might as well drive the point into your skull with, well, some sort of man-made pounding device. It's modern conservatism at its best—an ode to the millions of people around the world [1] who work hard, sometimes under harsh conditions, to provide for their families. Jackson keeps it positive, avoiding the cheap, crowd-pleasing suggestion that people who don't fit the above description are somehow doing it wrong.

The last line, however, is a bit of a head-scratcher:
Oh, the working man…and woman
The "and woman" sounds so much like an afterthought I can only assume that's how it's meant to sound, and I don't know what to make of that.

Billy Currington: "Pretty Good at Drinkin' Beer"
I wasn't born, for diggin' deep holes
I'm not made, for pavin' long roads
I ain't cut out to climb high line poles, but, I'm pretty good at drinkin' beer
A disconcerting twist on the usual "hard work and simple livin' are all I need" theme, in which the necessity of the former is seriously called into question, if not refuted altogether. Of course, it's not so much hard work that Currington is denouncing, but ambition. In a delightfully tongue-in-cheek way, he's saying he'll probably never be great at anything, so he might as well embrace it—have fun, be one of the guys, and work just hard enough to get by.

Lack of ambition is hardly a conservative value, but actual conservative values—being happy with what you have, drinking Bud Light, etc.—are littered throughout the song, and it creates a dichotomy I'm not sure how to reconcile. If you find a profession you're good at and work hard to be successful, doesn't that imply that you weren't totally content with what you had beforehand? And doesn't that generally mean spending less time drinking beer with your friends?

There are only two possible explanations. Either ambition and self-sacrifice are no longer conservative values, or Billy Currington is part of a liberal conspiracy to infiltrate country music and impart socialist views on the inadequacies of capitalism to a traditionally unreceptive audience.[2]

Little Big Town: "Little White Church"
You've been singing, that same old song
Far too long, far too long
Say you'll buy me a shiny ring
But your words don't mean a thing
No more calling me baby
No more loving like crazy

Til' you take me down (take me down)
You better take me down (take me down)
Take me down to the little white church
I'm pretty sure the point here is that traditional values do not become unimportant just because a song comes perilously close, stylistically, to Rock 'n' Roll.[3]

1. That's right, there's no indication Alan Jackson is referring specifically to American workers. I suppose it's not unreasonable to speak in such glowing terms about, say, hard-working blue-collar Canadians, but what about the Chinese? Or the French? And now that I think about it, the song in no way excludes the millions of hard-working unauthorized aliens. Fortunately, this lyrical oversight is rectified by the video, which is just lousy with American flags.
2. Alright, there's a third explanation—the song is kind of funny, and ultimately meaningless.
3. Also, it may be about oral sex. I've commissioned a study.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Reputation for Intolerance

As far as I'm concerned, everything that needs to be said about the planned Islamic community center in the vicinity of Ground Zero was said here, but there's still plenty to be said about the various things being said about the community center. For example, Obama's former Communications Director Anita Dunn, who appeared on one of those cable news chatter shows with a play on words for a name and said the following:
The Republican Party is solidifying its reputation for intolerance.[1]
The first response came from fellow panelist Pat Buchanan, who, in a bold strategic gambit, chose to miss the point entirely:
Anita, let me ask you about this word tolerance. I mean, what about tolerance for the views of the thousands of families of those who died on 9/11?
Then came the blogs:
Dunn was lathered in the usual self-righteousness as she spat her venom this morning, all of it completely out of step with reality as most Americans see it.
Anita Dunn…was amongst her own kind on MSNBC today, bashing Republicans and anyone else who opposes the Ground Zero Mosque.
[Dunn] showed up on MSNBC (The Obama Network) to lash out at critics of the Ground Zero Mosque. She says Republicans are hateful and intolerant.
It doesn't get much more senselessly reactionary than this. I see absolutely nothing false or confrontational about what Dunn said. Republicans have a reputation for intolerance.[2] That reputation is largely a product of the positions Republicans take on issues like this one. Thus, it can safely be presumed that the effect, however weak or strong, of this particular controversy on that particular reputation is, indeed, an overall increase in solidity.

An appropriate response would be to argue that the Republicans' reputation for intolerance is undeserved—not an argument I'm prepared to make at the moment, but I’m sure it’s out there somewhere. An even better response would be to acknowledge that, actual beliefs aside, Republicans would probably benefit from a less cavalier attitude toward alienating large groups of people. But that requires agreement with something a liberal said about Republicans, so that's not going to happen.

Does it ever occur to Republicans to ask themselves why they don't get 100% of the vote? There are, obviously, many reasons, and this is among the handful that are both substantial and valid. Republicans often take positions that, rightly or wrongly, make them look like intolerant bigots, which is ok with them because they've made up their minds that they're not intolerant, and who cares what you think. Not that it's fair to apply the stereotype to every member of the party, but that's exactly what happens, and, in related news, there's a pretty strong positive correlation between not being perceived as intolerant and not being a Republican. You'd think they'd want to do something about that.

1. Sure, there's more to the quote, but no one else seems to care about context, so why should I?[3]
2. Is that not self-evident? I mean, virtually every non-Republican I know thinks Republicans have a hard time tolerating views and lifestyles that differ from their own. And Republicans themselves would have to be pretty sheltered to be unaware that such a perception exists.
3. Hm…Footnote 1 sounds a little too much like Newt Gingrich's "there should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia" for my liking (in that it's a case of holding oneself to a shamefully low standard). I should care about context regardless of whether anyone else does—it's just not all that relevant to the points made in this post.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Just My Viewpoint

In broad terms, there are three reasons for my aversion to conservatism:
  1. Conservative views are often presented in dishonest, confrontational ways, with the apparent goal of alienating and vilifying those who disagree.
  2. The conservative movement has embraced anti-intellectualism.
  3. Too many conservatives are willing (if not eager) to legislate morality.[1]
The purpose of this site is to identify and analyze things that fall into the first two categories. Basically, I want my criticism of conservatives to come from a conservative perspective, which means focusing on issues where, for the most part, I agree with the conservative viewpoint, if not the mode of presentation. Besides, it's a waste of time and effort to try to change minds on issues of morality.

That said, here begins my attempt to change minds on issues of morality. Well, I’ll work up to that—first, I just want to encourage a little honesty. And by honesty, I mean something in sharp contrast to this:
I do not think that gay relationships are—they are not what God intended. And that’s just my viewpoint on it. Others might disagree with that.
I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.
[A gay president] would be bothersome to me just personally because I consider it immoral.
All of the above are quotes from Republican candidates for major offices in the various southern states I most closely pay attention to.[2] The common thread, aside from their unanimous support for traditional marriage,[3] is this “I believe” and “that’s just my viewpoint” junk. Come on, Republicans, are you even trying anymore?

You know what? I don’t think reality shows about spoiled teenagers are what God intended. I believe a proper tip is between 15% and 25%.[4] And unnecessary apostrophe’s are bothersome to me personally. Let’s pass some laws!

The “we’re a Christian nation and the Bible is all about how certain people should be treated better than others” stuff, at least, I can respectfully disagree with. I can’t disagree with “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman,” because it’s true—that is what he believes. But there’s no way Rick Scott, et al. sincerely believe that’s good enough. And that brings me back to honesty. If you’re going to support legally-sanctioned discrimination, do it for a reason that exists outside the confines of your own skull. And have the guts to be consistent about it—call for a ban on divorce, a requirement that every married couple get down to the business of procreating, a requirement that every child have a mother and a father, and whatever else needs to be done to preserve "traditional values."

I’m not saying opponents of gay marriage are wrong (I will say that, I’m just not saying it here), but, for millions of people, securing same-sex marriage rights is an extremely important and personal objective. “That’s just my viewpoint” is not an acceptable basis for denying those rights.

1. Their own morality, that is.
2. In order: (former) Georgia gubernatorial candidate Karen Handel, Florida gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott (also acceptable: George W. Bush and Barack Obama), and incumbent South Carolina Senate candidate Jim DeMint. (I know, I know, DeMint’s just being a bigot, not supporting any specific legislation—but it’s hard to ignore a quote like that.)
3. Because if gay rights advocates have their way, traditional marriage will be abolished altogether, right?
4. Lower bills sometimes call for proportionately higher tips. A 75¢ tip on $5 worth of Waffle House coffee and hash browns is just morally repugnant.

Monday, August 9, 2010


I’m fascinated by words—how we use them, how we misuse them, and what they sometimes reveal about our own prejudices. I’m especially fascinated by the way terms with largely positive connotations can devolve into vitriol-inspiring buzzwords. I even use a few of these in my header—tolerance, diversity, and compassion—in a counter-intuitive attempt to make my site more provocative.

Well, guess what? I believe in amnesty too. Not unequivocally, of course, but there are times when it's the appropriate thing to do. And yet, when amnesty is brought up in the context of immigration, certain people (you know who you are) react like the plan is to open the borders and empty the jails, flooding the streets with murderers and terrorists who—as if it isn’t bad enough already—don’t even speak English!

The thing is, not all forms of amnesty are alike. Take the cleverly-titled Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. Under the DREAM Act, an alien who entered the U.S. before age 16, has been in the country for at least five years, has graduated high school, and meets the vaguely-defined “good moral character” requirement, would be able to obtain conditional permanent residency. Six years later, if they’ve spent at least two years in college or the U.S. military, they could apply for a green card.

That’s a slam dunk, right? A path to legal status for aliens who were brought into the country as children, have spent a significant part of their lives in America, and are educated and (otherwise) law-abiding. If we agree on nothing else as a society, can we at least agree that this is the right thing to do?

No, of course not. Here's Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX):
The DREAM Act represents a dual assault on law-abiding, taxpaying American citizens and legal immigrants.
You know, conservatives often become defensive about being seen as heartless. “We don’t hate poor people,” they say, “we believe the best thing for poor people is an economy that rewards hard work and ingenuity—entitlement programs, on the other hand, serve to perpetuate poverty by discouraging those things.”

They could certainly do a better job of selling it, but I think that makes a lot of sense. In fact, most of the seemingly heartless things conservatives do can be supported on similar grounds. Taxes shouldn’t be disproportionately high on the rich because the rich stimulate the economy and provide jobs for the not-so-rich. A market with minimal regulation is good for consumers because it keeps prices low, and good for businesses because it encourages innovation. We shouldn’t overdo it with the foreign aid because it doesn't encourage long-term stability. Et cetera.

Opposition to the DREAM Act, however, is just plain heartless.[1]

Think about what has to be done to avoid breaking a given law. Murder? Don’t kill anyone without a good reason. Seems manageable enough. Arson? Don’t intentionally set a building on fire. Hard to imagine a problem there, either. How about, say, insider trading? Wikipedia says you'd have to avoid making trades "based on material non-public information in violation of some duty of trust." A little tougher, perhaps, but still totally doable.

Now, what would it take for an alien eligible under the DREAM Act to avoid breaking the law? To begin with, a time machine (and not the kind that only goes forward). Upon arrival in 1975-2005, the alien, who at this point would be somewhere between ages 0 and 15, would have to either convince his or her parents (or whoever) to stay in Mexico (or wherever) instead of relocating to the United States, or stay behind alone.

Of course, I probably could’ve stopped at “time machine.” Realistically, all the alien can do is try to minimize the consequences of the violations that have already occurred.[2] That means returning to Mexico (or wherever) upon turning 18 and applying to enter the country the right way, like any other law-abiding immigrant. Nevermind that most of the people we're talking about are more familiar with life in the United States than Mexico (or wherever)—they’ll have plenty of time to get assimilated while they wait.[3] Processing times depend on what type of visa (if any) a particular alien is eligible to file for, but most can expect it to take several years. For some visa categories, the government is just now processing applications that were filed in 1992.

And that’s if they leave the country right away. One year of unlawful presence prohibits an alien from applying for a visa for ten years. The clock starts at age 18, so if they’re still here on their 19th birthday they might as well leave for good.[4] Would that make everybody happy? To get rid of all those (otherwise) law-abiding, English-speaking college students that are such a drain on the economy? I guess we have to—anything short of that would be amnesty, and conservatives absolutely hate amnesty.[5]

This article, after taking a few shots at those of us who feel empathy for “law breakers,” at least agrees that they should have an opportunity to obtain citizenship—but only after re-paying all the money the government has spent on them (because they weren't responsible for being brought to America, but somehow are responsible for the fact that our government loves to pay for stuff). Whatever. I’m more interested in some of the comments:
No amnesty for law breakers OR THEIR KIDS.
NOT our fault the parents broke our laws for them.
Illegal means "broke the law" and you want to not just ignore and give them amnesty but reward people for coming to the US illegally?
What punishment they suffer for violating the law? We're giving them citizenship and we're going to force the schools and or military to pay forit, yeah that's some punishment, NOT.
My God. What I wouldn’t give to deport these people instead.

1. Or, in the case of some congressional Democrats, part of an infantile strategy to pass comprehensive immigration reform or nothing at all. Actually, I think that qualifies as heartless too.
2. This is not, by any means, an exhaustive review of all the alternatives—and their various requirements—available under the immigration laws, in part because I’m hardly an expert, and in part because, trust me, you wouldn’t want to read it if it was exhaustive. The point is, while some aliens who would be eligible under the DREAM Act may have other feasible paths to legal residency, the vast majority do not.
3. Take language, for example. Contrary to popular belief, non-anglophones who come to the U.S. do learn English, and the more time they spend in America, the less likely they are to retain their proficiency in Spanish (or whatever).
4. Because I’m sure every unauthorized alien child is fully aware of the severe consequences of violating one of these arbitrary rules.
5. To be fair, the DREAM Act does have some bi-partisan support. The House version has five Republican co-sponsors, almost half of whom represent districts that aren't in South Florida. Following Mel Martinez's resignation, the bill's bipartisan support in the Senate starts and ends with Indiana's Richard Lugar, who once met Ashley Judd.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Our Constitutional Republic

America was founded on the idea that democracy is not an acceptable form of government. Madison, Hamilton, and the rest of the framers of the Constitution understood the reality that, given a choice, people will often act in their own interests rather than the greater good.

It is no coincidence, then, that practically every aspect of our government is designed to preclude abuses at the hands of a like-minded majority. The defining characteristic of that structure, of course, is that we don’t enact or enforce legislation ourselves—we elect people to do it for us. We have even less power to choose the president and vice president—all our votes do is decide who gets to do the electing.

That might’ve been enough for some fledgling republics, but not America. The founders felt the need for one more safeguard—a branch of government composed of our wisest, most objective citizens, empowered to review and overturn legislation without fear of being removed from office by an unhappy electorate.

To put it another way, the judicial branch is charged with the one task that is vital to a functioning society, and impossible in a pure democracy—doing things that are unpopular. Because what is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular.

But the obvious downside to judicial review is that, sometimes, courts screw up. And why wouldn’t they? Judges are expected to be more knowledgeable and impartial than the average voter, but no one expects them to be infallible. Still, it’s rare for a ruling—even an extremely controversial one—to be blatantly, indisputably wrong. More often, a ruling is counter to a person’s existing worldview, or their understanding of the legal questions involved, or both.

When that happens, the immediate temptation is to accuse the judges of getting caught up in politics and emotion and activism—things that are supposed to be beneath them. The next step is to do something about it. Perhaps the ruling can be appealed, or undone by constitutional amendment. If a similar case can be brought before another judge, maybe a different conclusion would be reached.

And eventually, after all the procedural options have been exhausted, people will just have to accept that, no matter how upset they are, and how much they complain, the courts have made a decision and that’s how things are going to be.

When conservatives start gushing over the Constitution, and our founding principles, and how those principles need to be protected at all costs, this is what they’re talking about. The people have a say in government, but that doesn't mean they can use it to do whatever they want. It all comes down to checks and balances, and just as there are mechanisms in place to keep each branch of government from abusing its power, the judiciary serves as a check on the voting power of the majority. You don’t have to be happy about everything the courts do, but you have to respect the system, because you'll need those same courts to be there when your rights are on the line.

Alright, that was my opening—merely the foundation for the actual content that follows. Here is that content:

All this "how dare they undermine the will of the people!" stuff is absolute bullshit, and conservatives should know better.[1]

1. Attention Google-searchers: This article is about the recent California federal court decision in the case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger, in which Judge Vaughn Walker—finding the state's voter-enacted ban on gay marriage to be a violation of both Due Process and Equal Protection—declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Ground Zero Mosque[1]

I’m growing more and more confident in the accuracy of my Manipulative Bullshit Detector. That’s why I immediately became wary when I heard about the plans for a Muslim community center in the vicinity of the World Trade Center site. If it’s not obvious, the heart of the controversy is basically “this is an opportunity for the Muslim community to reject extremism while doing its part to help society grow and rebuild, both figuratively and literally” vs. “this is, at best, cold and insensitive, and, at worst, an intentional act of defiance and provocation.”

Clearly, this story has a ton of potential for manipulative bullshit—it was just a matter of time. Sure enough, the alert level went from orange to red when I saw this,[2] courtesy of Neal Boortz:
There are reports that our wonderful Muslim friends plan to open this Mosque next year on September 11, 2011? The 10th anniversary of their murder of 3000 people. Now that's some rather incredible timing, don't you think?
Well, that’s a game-changer! As a bleeding-heart liberal, I’m inclined to assume good faith until I see evidence suggesting otherwise, but scheduling a celebratory grand opening on such a somber day—the ten-year anniversary of one of the most evil things ever done in the name of Allah—is pretty strong support for the “purposeful act of defiance and provocation” argument.

There is still, however, the nagging question of whether the reports are, you know, true. Too bad repetition doesn’t prove validity—this case would be closed. For example, here's Andrea Peyser of the New York Post (May 13):
The opening date shall live in infamy: Sept. 11, 2011. The 10th anniversary of the day a hole was punched in the city's heart.
Pamela Gellar of Atlas Shrugs (May 15):
The date that the Islamic monument of conquest is set to open: September 11, 2011.
Chelsea Schilling of WorldNetDaily (June 7):
[T]he new Islamic mosque plans to open its doors on Sept. 11, 2011.
And on and on. The claim shows up on dozens of sites, none of which provide a source. Perhaps more telling is where it doesn’t appear—Fox News. (Well, it was brought up on Fox & Friends, but, to paraphrase Jon Stewart, it’s a little unfair to question Fox News' credibility by going after Fox & Friends, because that makes it way, way too easy.[3] They’re the rotting fruit on the ground that you have to trample on to pick the low-hanging fruit off the tree.)

Anyway, as far as I can tell, this ridiculous game of telephone traces back to a May 6 New York Daily News article:
[Cordoba Initiative board member Daisy] Khan said her group hopes construction on the project will begin by the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Two things come to mind. First, she’s not talking about the “grand opening,” she’s talking about the more nebulous concept of beginning construction (albeit in terms of a very poorly-chosen reference point). Second, this isn’t a direct quote. It’s part of the writers’ account of what happened at the committee meeting. For all we know, Khan said construction would start “next fall,” or “within a year or so,” or maybe someone asked if her group hopes to start construction before September 11, 2011 and she simply said “yes.”

As usual, it’s not so much the misinformation that bothers me, but the way it serves to distract from what could be a stimulating and beneficial discussion. There are a lot of legitimate issues here, such as the fairness of imputing the views of extremists to all members of a group, and whether we’re seeing latent Islamophobia in the form of implied demands that American Muslims—many of whom are among those who lost loved ones on 9/11—take greater responsibility for the terrible crimes of others who (at least superficially) share their faith.

But the choice of September 11, 2011 as the opening date? Not a legitimate issue, because it’s not happening.

1. Well, it's actually a community center, but it's much scarier to call it a mosque.
2. Incidentally, Boortz’s post contains an embedded Fox & Friends clip. This exchange occurs at the 2:20 point:
— NYC firefighter Tim Brown (presenting his views reasonably and respectfully, and thus failing to adequately represent his side of the debate): “My problem is that there is a bit of mistrust here—and not personally with the imam, but just in general.”
Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade: “Between Muslims and Americans?”
I think that says a lot about why this is so upsetting to so many people.

3. See also: Footnote 2.