Friday, May 18, 2012

AZ SoS Is The Latest Birther

First, birthers asked "Where's the Birth Certificate?" Then they got the birth certificate, and the conspiracy went dormant for awhile, before they realized a simple truth. Unfortunately, it was not "we're conspiratorial lunatics who held a wildly implausible belief without any evidence whatsoever." It was "well, obviously it's a fake!" Rick Perry played that card last year, a Colorado Congressmen declared he didn't think Obama was from here either, and the latest on the train is Arizona's Secretary of State Ken Bennett, who is threatening to keep Obama off the ballot unless given "proof" (apparently something other than, oh you know, the birth certificate) that Obama was in fact born in Hawaii.

Obviously this isn't actually going to go anywhere. But it is still rather incredible to behold.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Why Even the Best Case Against Same-Sex Marriage is Morally Unsustainable

"To die for an idea," Anatole France once wrote, "is to place a pretty high value upon conjecture." Presumably this goes double for having others die and suffer for one.

I was thinking a bit more about the "strong" case against gay marriage. By strong, I mean ones that try to take seriously the moral equality of gay and lesbian individuals, that claim to not be predicated on homophobic degradation, but instead about maintaining the stability of what they take to be an essential social institution: marriage (folks like Robert George spring to mind, though the way he presented his argument here seems somewhat different). The claim, as I understand it, is that allowing gay marriage weakens the social value and meaning of marriage as a whole. To the extent that a strong social consensus around the value of marriage is important for societal welfare, then gay marriage can justly be opposed as a potential threat to the institution as a whole. As for civil unions, the argument as I've seen it is not adverse to some mechanism for allowing gay couples to secure most (if not all) of the rights accorded to heterosexual couples, but they worry that gays and lesbians won't be "satisfied" with civil unions, and sets us down the slippery slope to gay marriage. Because the bottom of the slope is so dangerous (they argue), we cannot risk setting down the top.

As I said, I was thinking about this, and I just don't find it remotely persuasive. I barely think it even has a claim to moral seriousness, if we unpack it. So, to the extent that this is the best that can be done ... no. Not flying.

The first concern I have when I hear this argument is that the ship may have already sailed. It is not clear to me that we have a unified definition of marriage in this country any more (if we ever did), and what's more, the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage is doing at least as much to "degrade" the perception of marriage as an institution amongst liberal-minded persons as their inclusion "degrades" marriage amongst traditionalists. Indeed, if anything it seems like the former effect swamps the latter: I do know of progressive-minded folk whom are deeply ambivalent, at best, about marriage, precisely because they see it as a heterosexist and bigoted institution, one that they may not be able to ethically buy into.

By contrast, I've never actually heard a marriage-traditionalist put their money where their mouth is and actually say they feel like their marriage is directly diminished in any way by the inclusion of gay couples, or that they are at all more ambivalent about getting married or participating in the institution of marriage as same-sex marriage spreads. Rather, they posit a considerably more indirect mechanism: They worry that other people -- the unwashed middle -- will progressively lose touch with value and sanctity of marriage, and that this in turn will make all marriages less meaningful.

This raises the second issue I have -- whether the conservative belief is actually falsifiable. If conservatives were making a personal claim -- "If gays are allowed to marry, then marriage isn't worth it for me" -- this wouldn't be an issue; it would simply be a matter of subjective personal preferences. Likewise for various deontological arguments one could make (that celebration of gay commitment is simply wrong, or, for pro-SSM advocates, that access to marriage is an essential component of human dignity). But the claim they seem to be making (about gay marriage's effect on other people's perception of marriage is an empirical one, and, for the reasons stated above, one I'm exceptionally dubious about. I'm exceedingly skeptical that gay marriage actually has any significant detrimental effect on marriage as an institution (if anything, I predict having a positive effect). So suppose 20 years from now we have a mountain of data in front of us, and it tells us that gay marriage exhibits no noticeable effect on the public's reverence and respect for marriage as an institution. Does their opposition melt away? I'm not convinced it does, because I think the tail is wagging the dog here -- the core belief is that gay marriage is bad, and any empirical scaffolding is just an apologia to try and attach the belief to something that at least gestures at respecting gay human dignity. If it falls away, they'll find something else.

But what of the risk I'm wrong? And here's where we return to Mr. France. Is there a non-zero risk that allowing same-sex marriage will have catastrophic social consequences? Sure, in the sense that there's a non-zero chance of essentially anything causing anything (there's also a non-zero risk that not allowing it will have catastrophic social consequences).

But it is conjecture, and thin conjecture at that -- dependent as it is on presumptions of what everyone else (but not me, of course!) will undoubtedly do as gays get married. It's a prediction that gets harder and harder to sustain each year. And in the meantime, that conjecture is weighed against the concrete material deprivations marriage inequality foists upon gay couples right now. We know that gay couples are sharply restricted in the rights and privileges that they can access vis-a-vis heterosexual couples. We know that even half-steps like civil unions are bitterly opposed by anti-gay marriage advocates because of the risk they'll lead to gay marriage -- putting yet further tangible barriers between gay couples and full equal rights. All of this is justified by ... conjecture, and seemingly a rather weak conjecture at that.

In this light, opposition to gay marriage ends up looking kind of like putting up a minefield in one's front yard to guard against a Canadian invasion. Is there a non-zero chance Canada is out to get us? Yes. If the Mounties do come streaming across our northern border, will the mines come in handy? Yep. But for the time being, that conjecture about Canadian intentions is having the tangible effect of blowing up a bunch of neighborhood kids, and in the face of that rather concrete harm one really can't ethically rely upon such thin conjectures.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

On Arafat and Sharon

Nobody enjoys mocking Republican Congressmen for their ignorance on Israel/Palestine than I, but I'm inclined to not make much of Rep. Joe Pitts' (R-PA) office's call for "Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Yasir Arafat" to restart the peace process (the reason this is a gaffe is that Arafat has been dead since 2004 and Sharon in a coma since 2006). It'd be one thing if Pitts actually said this, but it was in a constituent form letter that apparently hadn't been updated properly. Careless, yes, but not actually probative of what Pitts knows or doesn't know.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

What Christianity Means To Young Americans Today

This is not Europe gone mad; this is not aberration nor insanity; this is Europe; this seeming Terrible is the real soul of White culture.

-- W.E.B. Du Bois

The above quote comes from Du Bois' 1920 work Darkwater. Anyone who has read Du Bois' more famous work, The Souls of Black Folk, would recognize a distinct shift in tone. n Souls, Du Bois was always very careful to not register condemnations of Whites or White society as a whole. Racism was a problem of a few bad, backwards persons; most people of goodwill were earnestly trying to achieve justice. Twenty years of failure later, and Du Bois was writing this instead -- in his experience and for what he had seen, the true face of White culture was lynchings, Jim Crow, colonialism, and oppression. The chapter, appropriately enough, was titled The Souls of White Folk

Whether Du Bois is being fair or not, the point is that from the outside looking in this is what Whiteness meant to someone like Du Bois. Its defining characteristic was as a tool of oppression. And I thought of that when I read this post detailing what young Americans think when they think about Christianity today:
When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers. (The next most common negative images? : “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too involved in politics.”)

Is this all that Christianity is? No. But in politics, in the public sphere, it is this issue that seems to animate self-declared "Christian" political action. It defines Christianity in the eyes of the public. To assert oneself to be "a Christian" is to identify oneself with the foremost social movement backing up the oppression of gays and lesbians in America today, through unequal laws, through bullying and harassment, through constant degradation. That's true even of the many Christians who really don't care about the issue, not to mention the many Christians for whom Christianity ought actually be about promoting the equal human dignity and human rights of all.

I'm not a Christian, so I can't tell Christians what their faith is or isn't, or does or doesn't require. All I can say is that when I hear a candidate for political office loudly assert he is a Christian, I wince. Not because I think there is anything inherently wrong with being a Christian, or any religious outlook, but because the social meaning of asserting oneself to be Christian in the American political context has become almost completely absorbed by "anti-gay".

That's what it means. And if the Christian faith wants to retain any purchase on the people of my generation (and maybe it doesn't), it is an issue they're going to have to deal with. Because I find this very sad, and very tragic.