Many miles to go before it gets better

Getting through the security line today at LAX, one of the TSA agents asked me a couple of casual questions about the book I was carrying (“America’s Unwritten Constitution”). He seemed genuinely interested, especially when I explained a little bit about what the book was about (the historical context in which the Constitution and the Amendments were written, and how these have changed over time and help inform our interpretation of it). He said he might be interested in picking it up, and then waved me through the machine.

After going through the metal detector, however, he seemed to have noticed the name of the author (Akhil Reed Amar), and was suddenly more concerned. “You sure he isn’t one of those people twisting things the wrong way?” he said, squinting dubiously and jabbing a finger at the author’s name. The implication being that, with a foreign, probably Arabic, possibly even Muslim (gasp!) name like that, the book was most probably un-American in some way or another.

Amar, by the way, is the Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale, and author of several highly-regarded books on the Constitution. He lives in CT.

I am reasonably sure that if I had been non-Caucasian, I would have been asked some more probing questions. Possibly worse if I had, myself, looked “too Muslim”.

That a member of the TSA, himself of a race that in many cities in this country would lead to him being pulled over and questioned while driving or walking down the street at a much higher rate than others simply because of the color of his skin, would be so prone to make that kind of profiling assumption, seems ironic at best, disturbing at worst. After all, these are people who are supposed to be watching and protecting us, trained to pay attention, supposedly (hopefully) without prejudice or stereotyping.

But we’re not there yet. We’re not at the point where we are judged solely by the content of our character and not the color of our skin. We’re not even at the point where we can’t be judged by the perceived origins and stereotypes associated with our names. But this event does raise my own personal awareness of the privilege associated with not looking a certain way: I have no doubt that this TSA agent was reassured more by the fact that I didn’t “look like” a terrorist (between my skin color and my lack of turban) than by anything I did or said.

It highlights, for me, how little I have to live concerned about the assumptions people have about my intentions, my intelligence, my motivations or my feelings about this country. Or even, ironically, my religion. It’s the invisible and singularly undeserved privilege of being Caucasian.

We rarely get the opportunity to experience even the tiniest bit of what it must be to be other than what we are, and to be pre-judged and stereotyped for it before we even get to open our mouths. That I became paranoid after the event–worried that another agent, who seemed to be close by me every time I looked around at the gate, was going to prevent me from boarding–was probably a one-time situation for me… and even more probably just my over-active imagination. For others who don’t look “the right way”, it’s most probably a way of life.

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Unplanned and unintended consequences of proof-reading your briefs

Paul D. Clement, the lawyer before the Supreme Court who is defending the DOMA, made a very interesting argument as to why same-sex marriage should not have the same protections and rights as “traditional” marriage: apparently the state has an interest in supporting the “unplanned and unintended offspring” of different-sex couples, and that’s why their parents need the additional rights, protections, benefits and tax breaks afforded by the Federal definition of marriage.  Same-sex couples, on the other hand, have to plan ahead if they want offspring, so they can be better prepared, which means they don’t need government support.

It’s the first time I’ve EVER heard anyone make the case that same-sex marriage shouldn’t be allowed because gay people are MORE responsible, prepared parents. And the first time I’ve heard a Republican-backed legal argument FOR a government-provided safety net for the unprepared and irresponsible. Following that logic, the government has a greater interest in supporting Catholic families over non-Catholic ones, and a vested interest in giving money to people who don’t understand how birth control works.

It’s SUCH a weird argument to make, it almost boggles the mind. If the interest of the state is only in supporting unprepared parents, then marriage is meaningless and irrelevant and deserves no rights or protections at all until an “oops! baby” is born to the couple. And NO rights or protections should be made available to couples who adopt either, since they also have the opportunity to plan ahead.  But here’s the most bizarre part: many of the children that couples (gay or straight) adopt  come from “unplanned and unintended” pregnancies.  And since the brief quotes Baker v. Nelson (1972) by saying there is a legitimate government interest  in providing support for an institution designed to facilitate the raising of such offspring, the brief simply undermines itself on that point: if the government interest is there, then it exists for support of parents of unplanned and unintended babies AS WELL AS those who adopt them, gay or straight.

But he’s making the argument that straight people are a burden on the state, and therefore deserve more government money. 

Sure, I get where he’s going from a legal perspective: he’s trying to differentiate between the classes of people involved on either side, since you can only make an argument of allowable differences in treatment (AKA “discrimination”) if there are, indeed, significant differences between the classes. But this is pretty thin soup on which to base the case.  Granted, it’s not the ONLY argument made in the 60-page brief: it also makes the case that providing Federal benefits to same-sex partners would be an unforeseen and unbudgeted expense.  In essence this means that your rights and protections depend on whether we have chosen to pay for them or not, and if we have it in the budget this year.  It’s amusing that this is the case being made by a legal group paid by Congress (not the Executive branch through the DoJ, who has been told not to defend the DOMA), happily billing taxpayers up to $3 million to do so.

But it’s obviously the “unplanned and unintended” argument that’s getting the most attention, and for a good reason: it’s the weirdest one of the lot.

Clement spends a lot of time describing how the Federal government has the right to define marriage for the purposes of treatment, and to take into consideration how the states have defined it without being constrained by those definitions, but I’m not sure anyone is arguing against that.  And a lot of time making a “uniformity” argument: that the government has the obligation to treat everyone as equally as possible (which is true), but that invalidating DOMA and redefining marriage would inevitably lead to some couples getting one set of Federal rights in one state that recognizes same-sex couples, but no rights in a difference state that doesn’t recognize them.  How he reaches that conclusion is not explored, since the Federal government can easily make the definition of marriage at the Federal level dependent on whether the couple is considered “married” in any state in the Union, and treat that couple the same for the purposes of Federal benefits and protections regardless of the state law.

And of course, the “it’s for the CHILDREN” argument.  As if the only reason to support marriage is to encourage the baby-making and biological parents-only family.  As if all couples get married for the sole purpose of procreation. As if there are no childless-by-choice married couples, no infertile couples, no couples who choose to adopt children (from unplanned and unintended pregnancies) rather than bear their own, no couples who raise children from their spouses’ previous relationships as if they were their own.

Shouldn’t the fact that there are people who can’t have children who want to get married invalidate that argument?

This is apparently the best that up to $3 million dollars of your tax money can buy.

Written on Jan 13, 2013, but posted today to ward off bad luck and the evil eye

It’s always interesting to note that one group’s deeply held religious beliefs are always so easily dismissed as ludicrous by those who hold different, equally implausible beliefs. I’ll see your virgin birth and raise you a demi-god born from swan rape.

The beliefs all tend to all be contradictory, so they can’t all be right. But they can all be wrong.

Insisting that something is true because there are a lot of people who believe in it (despite the evidence) doesn’t always serve to raise confidence in the assertion, either. We seem to “believe” a lot of irrational things that are demonstrably not true, and the fact that your local newspaper still probably carries the horoscope is a demonstration of that. Ditto the fact that your local hotel probably doesn’t have a 13th floor.

Think about that: hotels don’t have 13th floors because people might think they are “bad luck”. So people stay on the 13th floor after it’s renamed the 14th floor, and that they are perfectly OK with. They’re still on the 13th floor, but apparently bad luck is fooled by the number printed on the elevator button. Honestly, people: that’s just inane.

I was reminded of this fact after the radio show this week with author, film-maker, teacher and former Muslim Alom Shaha. I have received a couple of comments since the show from people whose core argument is, basically: “Well it’s easier to become an atheist after you’ve been a Muslim, because that religion forces you to believe all kinds of things that go against common sense…”

But of course YOUR religion, that one is perfectly rational.

We all seem to have a tendency to believe weird, irrational stuff, and we’re terrible at measuring coincidence, probability and risk. It’s interesting from an evolutionary development perspective (why was this a benefit to genetic survival, or was it just a by-product of a brain overbuilt for pattern-matching?), but asserting facts on the basis that you don’t understand the numbers behind them inspires little confidence in your argument.

“What are the odds?” Well, they are non-zero, for starters. That’s enough in most cases to note that the low-probability event you are so convinced demonstrates supernatural intervention is, in fact, inevitable over millions of event iterations. If you think you’re one in a million, there are seven thousand of you alive today.

And the odds are extremely high that 6,999 of them hold beliefs that you find crazy, and vice versa. But there’s way more of them than there are of you… so you have to agree that the odds are much higher that you are the one that’s nuts, right?

Gallup poll: “religion” major factor in opposition to same-sex marriage

“Religion” is the reason most people cite for their opposition to same-sex marriage. Big surprise: that was the most common reason we heard when talking to people on the phone banks with MN United.

But a pretty clear indication that most people still don’t understand that their religious beliefs cannot be imposed on others by law in this country. Your religion opposes same-sex marriage? Fine, then don’t get one, and no one will force your church to perform one either. That’s part of the definition of religious freedom.

But accept that you live in a country with religious plurality that happens to be a democracy, not a theocracy, and therefore you can’t impose your religious belief on others. There are plenty of people that belong to religions different from yours, for whom same-sex marriage is perfectly acceptable; in addition, plenty of people of no religion don’t feel a compelling need to adopt your religious opinion or the belief-based reasons behind it, and will resent you trying to force it on them.

And it happens to be unconstitutional too.

One more thing: a majority of Americans are now in favor of same-sex marriage, so your opinion is in the minority: now, I should stress that we don’t have a “majority rule” mentality on this, since protection of minorities against the majority is one of the major principles we like to defend. But it does point out the fact that your opinion on this is slowly disappearing into the fog of discriminatory history.

Fine, you won’t attend their weddings. I’m sure they’ll get over it.

Separation of Church and State: it’s not just a great idea, it’s the law. For your protection as well as ours.

Give to the Max!

Since it’s a Give to the Max kinda day, let me remind you about the the little radio show we do on Sunday mornings, which you can listen to live or as a podcast here.  Last Sunday’s show is up!

It costs only a few hundred dollars to do each show, and we get some of that through advertising, and a lot of it through donations. Science, skepticism, secular values and education are our focus, and we think it’s a laudable goal. Would you like to help the program reach it? Then donate through the link below to MN Atheists for Give to the Max, and let us know how much of the donation you want to be specifically for the show.

Do it because WE LOVE YOU!

http://www.razoo.com/story/Minnesota-Atheists-Public-Outreach-Campaign

A moar perfect union… FIRST!!!1!

English: A Toyota in San Antonio, Texas, with ...

English: A Toyota in San Antonio, Texas, with a rear bumper sticker that reads “Secede”, which refers to Governor Rick Perry’s speech during which he mentioned “the right of Texas to secede from the union” during a “tea party” in Austin in April of 2009.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/15/gov-rick-perry-texas-coul_n_187490.html I have blackened out the license plate to keep the vehicle’s owner anonymous. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t know what is funnier: 90k people (many of them from outside Texas) signing a non-binding, relatively meaningless petition to have the state “secede from the Union”, or the media treating this as a serious event that demands attention, or people from Texas (a state of 25 million) expressing outrage and concern that this was a formal request that they have to reject otherwise it will somehow automatically happen.

Many a Facebook comment these past few days from Texas residents trying to find out who they have to contact to note that they disagree with the petition. The fact that it’s a petition on the White House website, which has a (self-imposed) rule to respond when the petition reaches 25k signers in 30 days, means little. The response can be “No, don’t be silly, and stop wasting our time.” There’s not even any sort of legal requirement for them to respond. Go ahead, create a petition on the website to force all secession proponents to “voluntarily self-deport”, go nuts. You might get on some FBI watch lists for your troubles, but trust me: you’ll be sorted under “LOL”, not under “Dangerous”.

How about fractal secession? People from Houston, Austin and El Paso have signed petitions on the same site asking to secede from Texas, if Texas gets to secede.

As to whether it’s the beginning of the process that would be required to actually secede… to be fair it’s not like there really *is* a formal one. The Supreme Court has rejected the argument that unilateral secession would be constitutional, but has noted that secession through revolution would… legal, I guess? Acceptable? It’s a weird situation when you ask whether the laws that govern a group of people apply to members of the group who want to leave. It’s not like the Constitution includes guidelines and directions for its own orderly dissolution.

However, even if ~600,000 or so signers of the various secession petitions are serious (and are indeed separate 600k individuals and not the same 5 people signing up every state on different computers), I’m not sure it’s terribly respectful of the democratic process to pretend that the entire Union can be dissolved based on the fact that a fifth of a percent of the population is angry that their guy didn’t get to be President. If angry online petitions from uninformed people had the force of law, Rush Limbaugh would be President of the Independent Patriotic Republic of Butthurtistan already.

Occupy’s Rolling Jubilee

Wipe our Debt

Hmmm. I… hmmmm.

This is brilliant, considering the goals of Occupy: use donations to buy customer debt for cents on the dollar, then just… forgive the debt. Then get the people whose debt is forgiven to donate to the Rolling Jubilee system (presumably in gratitude for no longer owing far more) and the cycle repeats.

This all depends on the pennies/dollars ratio that you can get, obviously, but by all accounts the collection agencies that buy consumer debt (and then harass the living daylights out of the debtor) pay a tiny fraction of the original debt. The Rolling Jubilee website is using a ratio of 0.05: a shiny nickel buys a dollar’s worth of debt, which is astounding.

A ginormous monkey wrench into the debt system would be to buy the debt, then sell it directly back to the debtor at the reduced rate.

The cycle of incentives this sets up is remarkably perverse, in a gleefully anarcho-screw-the-system kind of way, not to mention the moral hazard issues. It may very well be unsustainable in the long run, especially since pouring money into the debt purchasing pot will inevitably change the supply/demand ratio, raise the price of buying debt, making the solution less palatable… but think of the short run boost it could give the economy. Assuming of course the capital freed up by no longer servicing debt fees and interest is plowed straight back into the economic system, which if the focus is on the cheapest debt available (that with little hope of recovery) may be a stretch.

And at the same time, if this is a charity issue, that debt with little hope of recovery is in all probability the debtor that most needs charitable forgiveness. And here’s the kicker: the debt they are starting with is medical debt. Brilliant, since it sidesteps the moral hazard issue: it’s not like the people involved are going to run out and get butt implants now that the debt on grandpa’s bypass surgery has been forgiven. A disincentive to buy insurance? Possibly.  But tie this to the Affordable Care Act’s requirements to buy health insurance, and that disappears too.

I love these people for thinking about this.

Now, if the goal of the movement is to achieve real change in the financial institutions, then this is particularly pointless. This is debt with little hope of recovery that the banks are already willing to sell for cents on the dollar to collectors, and technically they would be perfectly happy to sell it to someone else: no more skin off their back than they had lost already, and therefore it gives them zero incentive to change.

But still interesting. Lots of pros and cons to think about. That’s what the internet is for. What do you think?

I guess some citizens are more united than others

Sheldon Adelson supported eight candidates for election, through SuperPACs on which he spent the largest amount of money any single donor has ever donated in political history. Millions and millions of dollars.

All of them lost.

All of them. ALL of them.

Lost.

In February 2012, Adelson told Forbes magazine that he is “against very wealthy ­people attempting to or influencing elections.”

I’m so glad he he got his wish!

[edited 9:58pm Central]

And lest we forget, Karl Rove’s groups American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS spent more than $390 million on the 2012 election; the candidates it supported overwhelmingly lost.

AWWWWW! SAD PANDA!

Unaffiliated. And proud.

For religious conservatives, election was a “disaster”

Fastest-growing segment of the religious voting category? “Unaffiliated”.

That includes atheists, agnostics, and (to be fair) religious people who don’t identify with any particular organized religion. That’s fine with me; it’s the organized groups like Moral Majority and Focus on the Family that cause the problems and divisiveness.

The major social issues of this campaign (women’s healthcare, abortion, same-sex marriage) were all raised by right-wing religious conservatives. They tried to use them as wedge issues, and as cowbells to wake up their base and scare them to the polls.

But we’ve reached the point in the demographic evolution of this country where they no longer have enough people on their side to make this type of tactic work. And I, as an “unaffiliated” myself, could NOT be happier. Now maybe we can focus on working on real issues, instead of wasting our time defending ourselves and our basic rights, against fundamentalism.

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY:

“Our message was rejected by millions of Americans who went to the polls and voted according to a contrary worldview.”

That is correct. Glad you figured that out. Hopefully you will learn the right lesson from this, and not just decide to double down and fight the future. You’re welcome to join us, we won’t hold the past against you.