Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Philadelphia School District has blocked me from following its Twitter account

The Philadelphia Inquirer has done first-rate work this week with its series on violence in Philadelphia public schools. The overall effect of the series has been to re-affirm for me—based on prior observations—that Supt. Arlene Ackerman and the district leadership are more concerned with clamping down on critics and whistleblowers than they are with fixing the district's substantive problems.

My opinion was reinforced today when the @PhillyEducation, the district's official Twitter feed, decided to mount a sustained attack on the Philadelphia Daily News for running a Photoshopped picture of Ackerman with a chainsaw in her hands—to illustrate coming budget cuts. Word of the feud got around quickly, and I did two things:

* I decided to follow @PhillyEducation's feed.

* I offered a series of my own Tweets criticizing the district for how it was handling the situation. I aimed my Tweets at Tara Murtha, a writer at Philadelphia Weekly, whose Tweet first alerted me to the imbroglio. I was irritated, as you can see, but I don't think my commentary was out of bounds:

Cut to this evening. I wanted to check into how the conversation had proceeded after I moved on to more productive work. Only to find out the school district had blocked me from subscribing to its feed:

From a technical standpoint, this isn't a huge deal. The district's feed is still open—I can see it if I just go to the feed page—but it is irritating. And it should be shocking: whoever runs the social networking voice of a government body has decided that mild criticism warrants being blocked from receiving "official" information about that body.

But it also proves my point. The district is more interested in blocking out the voices that talk about what it's doing wrong than it is fixing those problems. The folks at North Broad Street don't know me from Adam; I'm just another citizen, taxpayer and parent they feel free to ignore. It's a lot easier to block me on Twitter than it is to provide safe and adequate education to the children of Philadelphia.

Today in inequality reading: Joseph Stiglitz in Vanity Fair

Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1% | Society | Vanity Fair: "America’s inequality distorts our society in every conceivable way. There is, for one thing, a well-documented lifestyle effect—people outside the top 1 percent increasingly live beyond their means. Trickle-down economics may be a chimera, but trickle-down behaviorism is very real. Inequality massively distorts our foreign policy. The top 1 percent rarely serve in the military—the reality is that the “all-volunteer” army does not pay enough to attract their sons and daughters, and patriotism goes only so far. Plus, the wealthiest class feels no pinch from higher taxes when the nation goes to war: borrowed money will pay for all that. Foreign policy, by definition, is about the balancing of national interests and national resources. With the top 1 percent in charge, and paying no price, the notion of balance and restraint goes out the window. There is no limit to the adventures we can undertake; corporations and contractors stand only to gain."

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bill James defends the jockocracy

Noted baseball stats expert Bill James has an interesting piece at Slate in which he suggests that the sports world does a much better job of identifying and promoting talent than, well, pretty much every other segment of society. "The average city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 years. If we did the same things for young writers, every city would produce a Shakespeare or a Dickens or at least a Graham Greene every 10 or 15 years," he writes. (And am I the only one who thinks he sounds like Malcolm Gladwell in this piece?) But I think he gets weirdly defensive at the end.
Because the sporting world was always ahead of the rest of the world in breaking racial barri­ers, black kids came to perceive sports as being the pathway out of poverty. For this we are now harshly and routinely criticized—as if it was our fault that the rest of society hasn't kept up. Some jackass Ph.D ex-athlete pops up on my TV two or three times a year claiming that a young black kid has a better chance of being hit by lightning than of becoming a millionaire athlete. This is nonsense as well as being a rational hash.

Look, it's not our fault that the rest of the world hasn't kept up. It's not our fault that there are still barriers to black kids becoming doctors and lawyers and airline pilots. Black kids regard the athletic world as a pathway out of poverty because it is. The sporting world should be praised and honored for that. Instead, we are more often criticized because the pathway is so narrow.
I think James misreads the criticism, and the object of it. Yes, it's not uncommon to hear laments that young black men (and young men generally) see sports as their best ticket to the good life. But the criticism isn't really heaped on the shoulders of the sports world. It's aimed at society in general, which has invested so much time, energy, and money in the sports world, which is why you often hear comparisons between (say) Jimmy Rollins' paycheck and that of a South Philadelphia schoolteacher. The idea is usually that we should be heaping more honors and money on the teacher. And that's kind of the point that James is making. So why is he being so defensive?

Fatimah Ali leaves the Daily News

I'm not a particular fan of Fatimah Ali; I thought her column last week advocating school prayer was several different kinds of wrongheaded. Yet I'm somewhat troubled this morning to learn that she's being forced out at the Daily News:
Several months ago, I began ponder the possibility that I might not be at the Daily News forever. I saw small signals that indicated how far apart I might be from the paper's edgy new perspective.

SO IT CAME as no surprise when I was told last week that today's column would be my last. But I remain a committed communicator, as well as a believer that God's time is always best.
Because I'm not really a fan of Ali, I suppose it's possible that Larry Platt is merely clearing away some of the more stale elements of the Daily News as he continues to remake the paper. But given his track record in the first months, it's also possible that he's dispensing with a lesser-known voice in order to import another celebrity columnist. I hope that's not the case, but I'm still suspicious that the Daily News is transitioning from "gritty" to "flashy." Ugh.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The New York Times stops blaming the rape victim; Jonah Goldberg might want to take notice

The New York Times has revisited the story of the 11-year-old Texas girl who was allegedly raped by more than a dozen men. It doesn't acknowledge the story is an act of penance for its earlier victim-blaming piece on the same topic, although editor Bill Keller said as much in an aside in his Sunday column.

It turns out that the girl wasn't victimized one time, but repeatedly over a period of months.
The arrests have raised fundamental questions about how a girl might have been repeatedly abused by many men and boys in a tightly knit community without any adult intervening, or even seeming to register that something was amiss, until sexually explicit videos of the victim began circulating in local schools.

“It wasn’t that anyone was asleep,” said the Rev. Travis Hulett Jr., the pastor of the New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, which anchors the Precinct 20 neighborhood where most of the defendants live. “You can be awake and see things and still not do anything.”
A tight-knit community in which 19 men felt they had the right to rape an 11-year-old girl, and only gradually did it dawn of folks that something wrong was going on here.

I couldn't help but think of this piece when I read Jonah Goldberg's column in today's Los Angeles Times, about how feminism has finished its work in the United States, and how what it really needs to do is pack up and start helping women overseas.
Islamist extremism and oppression of women go hand in hand. And while the correlation between poverty and terrorism is often overstated, the correlation between prosperity and women's liberation is profound. Female education is tightly linked with GDP growth, lower birthrates and even higher agricultural yields.

It's also tightly linked with human freedom and decency, which is why no Islamic "spring" is possible without a feminist revolution.
There is something to this. Recent events in the Arab world have brought us fresh examples that one of the tools of oppression is to rape and sexually humiliate women who challenge authority. Americans—and American feminists—should push back, hard, against those cultures.

But there's a certain "Go back to Russia!" quality to Goldberg's complaint. Yes, there are bad things happening overseas that deserve the attention of feminists. But we still live in a country where a community of men will take advantage of a young girl, and the community that surrounds them will struggle to justify their actions or blame the young girl, and where a major national newspaper will occasionally unthinkingly print those justifications without contradiction. That suggests to me there's still plenty of work for feminism to do at home, as well.

The fight over delivering cable to my iPad

I don't have Time Warner service, but this New York Times story about that company's new iPad app—it live-streams TV programming to the tablet to cable subscribers using the device in their home—is interesting. Apparently the TV networks think Time Warner is horning in on their business:
But some channel owners say that companies like Time Warner Cable should be consulting with them more closely before introducing new products. “Portability is a different business proposition,” said an executive at one of the major channel owners, suggesting that there should be a premium paid for the ability to take a TV show into bed or into the bathtub. One commercial for Time Warner Cable’s app actually shows a person watching TV on a tablet while taking a bath.
Portability is a different proposition—if true portability is involved. (By which I mean: I can take my iPad to the cafe down the street and watch CNN on it.) But that's not the Time Warner app. As the Times notes: "The iPad app only works inside the home, and only for customers who receive both television and Internet from the operator."

From a consumer standpoint, then, I don't think there's a significant difference here that should require me to, you know, pay more for cable service. Water comes into my apartment in several places, for different functions: A kitchen sink for washing dishes and providing water for cooking and drinking; the bathroom sink for hand-washing and tooth-brushing; the bathtub for body-cleaning. We also have water flowing into our washing machine.

Yet we don't get charged for the different types of ways the water gets used in our apartment: the water is delivered to us, we pay for it, and we use it as needed. Cable television isn't water, of course, but I don't know why it can't be the same way: Get the entertainment to my house and let me choose how to view it. Don't charge me extra just because I'm watching Comedy Central on my iPad instead of a television.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Koch brothers' mighty big bootstraps

I don't have a particular dislike for the Koch brothers; perhaps that's a consequence of having grown up in Kansas and knowing people who have worked for for their company. But a lot of the ire directed their way from the left strikes me as basically a much-less-anti-Semitic version of the hysteria the right routinely whips up about George Soros. They should be paid attention, but there's a limit to the usefulness of scapegoating them.

That said, Matthew Continetti could've saved himself some time on his Weekly Standard profile of the brothers by farming the work directly to their public relations team. The shared grievance--People are criticizing us because we got involved in politics? The horror!--is laid on a little thick at times. But the part that really caught my eye was the description of how the brothers have increased the value of their company since taking it over from their father in the 1960s:
Fred was a towering personality. “My father was a man of enormous integrity, and he wanted his children to grow up to be great men, and fine, honest, decent people,” David said. Charles and David attended their father’s alma mater (MIT) and studied his chosen field. When Charles graduated, he stayed in Boston. He found a job with the consulting firm Arthur D. Little, where he worked in business development and management services. Life was good. Then in 1960 he got a call from his father: My health is failing, Fred told him. You need to come back and work for the company and succeed me. “I said, ‘God, I’m doing great here, so I’d rather stay here,’ ” Charles said. Which he did.

A year later Fred called Charles again. Return home and work for me, Fred said, or I’ll sell the company. Charles complied. “He was very strong, and Dutch, and one of his favorite sayings was, ‘You can tell the Dutch but you can’t tell them much,’ ” Charles said. He took over the company after his father’s death in 1967. In the years since Charles Koch went to work for Fred, Koch Industries has grown more than 2,600-fold. The notion that Charles and David are “inheritance babies” is nonsense.
The sense you get from this and other parts of the story is that Charles and David Koch genuinely believe themselves to be self-made men. I don't want to disparage their business acumen--the American landscape is littered with the husks of companies and industries that were once too big to fail--but it's also the case that it's a lot easier to become a billionaire if you're already a millionaire and have a degree from one of the finest universities in the world. That they don't seem to recognize this speaks badly of their ego, but it also speaks to why lots of folks on the left are suspicious of the Kochs' big-business libertarianism: the Kochs seem to truly believe that the free market rewards anybody who is willing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but they don't seem to care much about the folks who don't have bootstraps.

Later in the piece:
The imputation in February that Governor Scott Walker had brought Wisconsin to a standstill to further the interests of Koch Industries was of course ridiculous. But it also demonstrated the power of the left-wing vilification machine. As the assaults piled up Charles couldn’t help thinking of Schopenhauer’s “Art of Controversy.” The German philosopher had noted that people who can’t win an argument through reason attack their opponent’s motivation. “I thought I was cynical enough,” Charles said. “But that was pretty shocking, to see what we’re up against, or what the country’s up against: to have an element like this.”

The left’s inability to understand where the Kochs were coming from puzzled Charles and David. Wasn’t it obvious that small government and free markets resulted in a better world? “Why don’t we teach in schools things that make society more prosperous, and more peaceful, and people will respect each other more? It’s a strange thing, isn’t it?” said Charles. “It’s unbelievable how they distort what your message is!” said David. The Kochs thought their aim was to increase the standard of living for everyone. The way to do this, they believed, was by applying to society the same methods that had grown their company.

To Charles, the call for bigger government was egalitarianism run amok. Liberals, he thought, fetishized equality of condition at the expense of personal liberty. “They cannot stand that some people are better off than others,” Charles said. “I think part of it fits Mencken’s definition of a Puritan: someone that’s miserable because he knows that someone, somewhere, is enjoying himself. He cannot stand that. And I think they all slept through Economics 101.”
I am, of course, amused that the Kochs complain of having their motivations attacked--then two paragraphs later do the same to their opponents. It's only human, of course. The problem is that they're wrong. Granted, liberals desire a more egalitarian society than the Kochs do, but for the most part it's a matter of degree: there are precious few real socialists influencing the discourse these days (the banks would've been nationalized in 2008 otherwise) but President Obama has largely surrounded himself with free-market liberals. We're pretty much all capitalists now.

But, you know, some of us believe in a safety net. Not to pull down the people at the top, but to prevent the people at the bottom from slipping through the cracks, and perhaps even to help the people in the middle from slipping to the bottom. That can be done in conjunction with capitalism, if capitalism isn't pursued as a form of social Darwinism. And it will be easier to do so if folks like the Kochs recognize their advantages, instead of believing themselves to be self-made men.

Ta-Nehisi Coates to the New York Times: A really bad idea

I've seen this idea surface in several places, most recently Andrew Sullivan's blog, and I'd like to nip it in the bud:
I read your item on Bob Herbert's resignation with interest, as you summarized my sentiments precisely. As way of replacement, I hope the Times considers Ta-Nehisi Coates, even though I have no idea whether he's even interested in the perch. It's not because they're both African-American; Ta-Nehisi writes about similar issues with twice the wit and grace that Herbert could muster. It would be a shame to see those issues drop off the table with Herbert's resignation, and it would represent a real promotion to one of the most talented American pundits out there.
I'm a huge fan of Coates--at this point, in fact, his career represents what I'd like to achieve with my own: He's largely self-taught; he knows what he doesn't know; he's liberal without being knee-jerk about it; and he is contemplative and graceful in addressing the issues that he does address. He doesn't tend to get caught up in the punch-counterpunch of the political blogosphere, but when he addresses an issue of the day, well, it stays addressed.

And I think the 1,000-word column format, twice a week, is precisely the wrong place for Coates. If the pressures of the format and platform didn't push him into becoming stridently ideological, the danger is that he might end up like David Brooks--following his muse into places better addressed somewhere other than the New York Times op-ed pages.

If the Times is looking for a young, non-Caucasian liberal to fill the slot, I'd recommend somebody like Adam Serwer, whose straight-ahead style seems to fit better into the major newspaper format. But let Ta-Nehisi be Ta-Nehisis.

UPDATE: I was probably wrong.

Today in inequality reading: 'The sad but true story of wages in America'

The Economic Policy Institute crunches some wage numbers in a new paper:
Recent debates about whether public- or private-sector workers earn more have obscured a larger truth: all workers have suffered from decades of stagnating wages despite large gains in productivity. The current public discussion illogically pits state and local government employees against private workers, when both groups have failed to sufficiently benefit from the economic fruits of their labors. This paper examines trends in the compensation of public (state and local government) and private-sector employees relative to the growth of productivity over the past two decades.

These data underscore that there is a bigger story than public versus private compensation and a more penetrating set of questions to ask than who has more than whom. The ability of the economy to produce more goods and services has not translated into greater compensation for either group of workers. Why has pay fared so poorly overall? Why did the richest 1% of Americans receive 56% of all the income growth between 1989 and 2007, before the recession began (compared with 16% going to the bottom 90% of households)? Why are corporate profits 22% above their pre-recession level while total corporate sector employees’ compensation (reflecting lower employment and meager pay increases) is 3% below pre-recession levels? The answers lie in an economy that is designed to work for the well off and not to produce good jobs and improved living standards.1

Essentially, economic policy has not supported good jobs over the last 30 years or so. Rather, the focus has been on policies that were thought to make consumers better off through lower prices: deregulation of industries, privatization of public services, the weakening of labor standards including the minimum wage, erosion of the social safety net, expanding globalization, and the move toward fewer and weaker unions. These policies have served to erode the bargaining power of most workers, widen wage inequality, and deplete access to good jobs. In the last 10 years even workers with a college degree have failed to see any real wage growth.

Billy Eger doesn't like my column on Libya

Even when I criticize Barack Obama, Billy Eger gets mad. His latest missive:
If that was bush I guarantee you would've written more than,perhaps the president did the right thing by intervening in Libya,but he certainly did it the wrong way. I call BS. Who is he attacking,an why,those aren't civilians they're Muslim brotherhood,they were busses there just like union thugs were too Wisconsin by SOROS,you really only have 2 braincells an 1 is out looking for the other,do you think the Muslims you support wouldnt hesitate to cut your head off an your children's heads after they're done using u too overthrow are govt. If you think they are so friendly u should b able too walk streets over there wo worry an harm,I doubt you would come back unscathed.think retard use the brain god gave u,its your arrogance that affects ur thinking,I feel sorry for your kids
billy from wickliffe

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Single-Tasking Sundays

More than a decade ago, I read a news story about a man who took a vow of silence--once a week. The world was so full of noise that he decided every Sunday was a day he would no longer add to the cacophony. Six days a week he looked and acted normal; the Sabbath he kept holy, more or less.

The world, of course, has only gotten noisier for many of us since the turn of the millennium. And for the most part, I welcome the advances that bring us the noise: blogs and Twitter and the iPad, among other developments, have made me better-informed and (I think) my life a bit richer. It is sometimes a bit much. And like a lot of folks, I have sought to ensure that I control the noise I receive, instead of the other way around. (I become more concerned about such control when I see my young son's facility and obsession with computers and iEverything.) There have been moments--fleeting to be sure-- that I have been tempted to cast all electronics out of my house a live a comfortable life of candle-lit Ludditism.

But I won't do that, for a variety of reasons.

I think, however, I will an attempt a solution. I will try--try--to keep the Sabbath holy.

I am not religious these days, so perhaps there is a certain amount of tongue-in-cheekness to my use of the phrase. I am embracing the wisdom found in the world's major religions, though, in trying to set a day apart for relaxation and contemplation. Call it a "Single-Tasking Sunday."

And here's my plan for my Single-Tasking Sundays: no electronics. No e-mail. No Facebook. No blogging. No fiddling with my iPhone every two minutes out of bored habit. For one day a week, I will live my life as though the world after (say) 1950 doesn't exist.

(One exception: music will continue to be delivered through an iPod. Right now, it's either compromise a bit, or have no music at all. But I've got my eye on a turntable. In any case, the point of this exercise isn't dogmatism.)

My newspapers will be newspapers. My walks will be outdoors, moving through time and space. My movies will be on film, viewed on a large screen. My books and magazines will be printed. I will try to live more quietly, more slowly, more deliberately.

This is not to cast off the modern world--I make my living, in part, chronicling the progress of technology. I'm writing this piece on an iPad! I have no reason to abandon the 21st century part of my 21st century life.

I need some breathing room, though. Maybe I can find it on Sunday.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Obama, Congress and Libya

I'm a little bit down on the president in this week's Scripps column:
Barack Obama was an attractive candidate to liberals in 2008 in part because he offered the promise of reining in the "imperial presidency" that had flourished under President George W. Bush, particularly when it came to military action abroad.

"The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation," then-candidate Obama told the Boston Globe in 2007. He added: "History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action."

Obama's actions in the last week -- committing the United States to military action in Libya with only the most-meager attempt to inform and involve Congress beforehand -- mean he has broken the promise of 2007. Libya was not and is not "an actual or imminent threat to the nation." That's not to say there aren't good reasons for intervening there; Congress should have had the opportunity to consider those reasons.

Despite Obama's protests otherwise, there was time. Discussion of the no-fly zone percolated in Washington D.C. and internationally for several weeks before action was finally taken; that was the time the president could have used to secure the support of Congress. He used it to get the support of the U.N. instead. He should have done both; a president should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Presidents have been going to war for decades without Congress' permission. It is plainly un-Constitutional. If liberals don't object, loudly, when a Democratic president crosses the line, they'll have no standing when a Republican president does the same thing. Perhaps the president did the right thing by intervening in Libya, but he certainly did it the wrong way.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Officer William Giulian says that Philadelphians who care about civil liberties are the real racists

Infuriating letter to the editor in today's Philadelphia Daily News from Officer William Giulian, responding to Marc Lamont Hill's column last week about the illegal traffic stop he endured. (The city settled his lawsuit instead of filing it.)

Some excerpts:
Now, today, I have to read about the struggle an apparently educated but blatantly racist college professor (aka Marc Lamont Hill) must go through on a day-to-day basis - oh, the humanity. His entire day was interfered with for five, maybe 10 minutes by a working police officer.

You have some brass ones to question why a police officer approaches a car he's pulled over to investigate, for a legitimate purpose (whether you agree with that or not doesn't matter), with his hand either over or on his weapon?

How about asking the family of Danny Boyle why we do that, or Sgt. Liczbinski's kids, or Daniel Faulkner's wife? I'd say to ask them, but you can't - they're dead, murdered in cold blood for simply doing their job. You have to look no further than the officer you have such a problem with for a reason that we approach a car with caution.

The problem I have with you, Marc, is that, just like so many of the people I serve, you want us to "do our job" (a phrase we hear almost daily) - but you also want us to do so at no inconvenience to you. What are you so nervous about? I know there has been some negative print regarding the Philadelphia Police Department recently, but not even the Daily News has printed an article about a police officer just walking up to a car and shooting the driver.

I'D LOVE to know how much they paid you for what amounts to nothing more than a regular old car stop in a bad neighborhood. Lucky for you they love to just throw money away around here.
This letter probably did more to damage the reputation of the Philly PD than Hill's unjustified car stop did. What Officer Giulian is suggesting here is that Philadelphians should be grateful to be stopped and felt up by police without probable cause just, you know, because they're in a bad neighborhood. And if you think the police have pulled you over illegitimately, hey: DEAD COPS! DEAD COPS!

Forgive me. I think the shooting of cops is evil. I understand why police officers feel the need to be cautious when they pull over a car. But that doesn't justify pulling over a nice car for no other reason than a cop's gut instinct. It just doesn't.

From what I can tell, Philly cops don't care much about the rights of Philadelphians. And they've used the martyrdom of their fellow cops as an excuse not to care much about the rights of Philadelphians. I'm grateful for a police force that keeps my family safe. But I'm angry that there are so many Philly cops like Officer William Giulian, who presume the rest of us are criminals until we prove otherwise.

Today in agnostic biblical literacy: Southern Baptists and single pastors

Today's NYT has an interesting story about single pastors and their inability to get hired because churches want to hire married men with children. Naturally, there's a justification:
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said it was unfair to accuse churches of discrimination because that word implied something “wrongful.”

“Both the logic of Scripture and the centrality of marriage in society,” he said, justify “the strong inclination of congregations to hire a man who is not only married but faithfully married.”

Mr. Mohler said he tells the students at his seminary that “if they remain single, they need to understand that there’s going to be a significant limitation on their ability to serve as a pastor.”
Now, I know, I know: I'm agnostic. And I also believe the Apostle Paul was kind of nuts. But Paul did write a fair amount of scripture, including lots of stuff that suggested that he saw marriage as desirable only insofar as it kept horny men from committing sins of passion. Otherwise, he was pretty down on the institution. Just a couple of quotes from I Corinthians Chapter 7.
8 Now to the unmarried[a] and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

32 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
If a church decides that it needs a married pastor, I'm not going to dispute it. And certainly, I'm not a fan of the priestly celibacy requirement in the Roman Catholic church--though, again, it's not my place to dispute it. But if you're going to turn away single ministers based on "the logic of scripture" as opposed to "scripture itself," it seems like you've already gone down the slippery path of moral relativism that Mr. Mohler likes to yell about in other cases. More to the point, it's kind of sad to see churches deprive themselves of the service of dedicated ministers who happen to be single. And those churches shouldn't fool themselves: there's lots of biblical argumentation against their position.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

There will be no more hope and change

I don't agree with President Obama's decision to militarily intervene in Libya, but it's a somewhat close call: I can easily see how reasonable people of good motivations can come to a different conclusion than I did. But I'm quite unhappy with how the process played out: Almost zero consultation with Congress, which does possess the Constitutional power to declare war. *

* Conservatives are noting that liberals aren't mounting anti-war protests, proving their Bush-era anger was largely an exercise in tribalism. Perhaps, but I note that I'm not seeing Tea Partiers scream angrily about the lack of Congressional consultation. Everybody's stupid, in other words. 

My anger at the Bush Administration stemmed, in large part, not just from the stupid invasions and illegal torture that it ordered, but its underlying theory of governance that seemed to do away with the checks and balances provided by Congress.  As bad as the Bush Administration was, though, it still sought Congressional backing before it invaded Iraq. In that sense, it showed more respect for the Constitution prerogatives of Congress than the Obama Administration did this week.

And I'm unhappy about that.

As a voter, I'm not certain what to do next. Do I vote for the party that favors an imperial presidency, or do I favor the party that favors an imperial presidency with somewhat less torture? I can't quite convince myself that both parties are exactly the same; the developments in Wisconsin in recent weeks show that one party is more committed to undermining both the rights of workers and the social safety net. I guess I'll take my militarism with a side of Social Security, thanks.

So I'll probably vote for Barack Obama in 2012, but only as a means of forestalling something worse. And I suppose it doesn't matter to him whether I vote for him while holding my nose or waving pom-poms. But I won't be giving any other kind of support to the Democratic Party. You get my vote, Dems, but you sure as hell don't get my allegiance.


Taken at Fitler Square

Balance beam

Taken at Taney Playground

Friday, March 18, 2011

I'm against intervening in Libya

You can take the boy out of the Mennonite Church, but you can't always take the Mennonite Church out of the boy: It's been nearly a decade since I walked away from my faith, but the pacifist foundation I acquired during those days still largely shapes my outlook.

Largely, but not completely. I believe the United States was right to topple the Taliban and go after Al Qaeda sanctuaries in Afghanistan following 9/11: I think nations have the right to self-defense. But I was against the Iraq invasion—I'm against defense so pre-emptive we don't even know if any threat is actually going to emerge—and I'm against President Obama's decision to instigate a limited war in Libya.


Well, it's not because I love Col. Qaddafi. I think he's a bad man who does bad things, and I'll be happy when his reign comes to an end. I'm rooting for the Libyans rebelling against him.

I just haven't heard a clear and convincing reason why the United States should get involved.

Now, I'm not a national security expert of any sort. It does seem to me reasonable, though, to ask a series of questions before jumping into a military commitment abroad:

A: Does the party against whom the United States is considering military action threaten U.S. security? If the answer is "no," the conversation should almost always stop here. There is an alternative question that permits progress, in my mind, even if U.S. security isn't directly threatened:

B: Is the party against whom the United States is considering action committing genocidal-levels of violence, such that even by the standards of war or civil war the conscience is shocked? This is probably a little more nebulous and requires more debate, and lots of people are going to draw the lines differently here.

C: If the answer to (A) is "yes," are there non-military means that could effectively mitigate the threat? Also difficult to answer, in part (I think) because it's harder to see cause-and-effect working together with non-military methods. It takes longer, it's more frustrating in some respects.

D: If the answer to (C) is "yes," do that. If the answer to (C) is "no," then: What is the desired end state of U.S. military action? A return to a previous status quo? Regime change? What? (Put another way: What does "victory" look like?If a clear answer to this question isn't forthcoming, it should be.

E: What is the worst-case scenario that could develop from U.S. military intervention? Is the scenario more or less threatening to U.S. security than the current threat? If the answer is "more," then you might want to refrain from military action.

F: Does the United States have the military and financial resources to bear the burdens of that worst-case scenario? See the action recommended in "E."

With regard to Libya, my answers are thus:

A: No. Some advocates talk about the security of the oil markets, but even if one makes a moral defense of deadly force to preserve cheap gasoline—difficult, I think—I'm not certain that Libya is creating that much instability, on its own. (Lots of other stuff going on in the Middle East might be affecting those prices, too.)

B. No. Qaddafi is a bad guy. But there isn't, from what I see, ethnic cleansing. He is trying to defeat the people who are trying to depose him. I think that's deplorable, but I don't see that it's hugely different from many civil wars that the United States doesn't involve itself in.

C. Actually, no. Qaddafi spent a generation living under sanctions and diplomatic isolation. The renewal of those conditions won't force him from power. If you believe that Qaddafi must be removed military action by the U.S. is your best bet.

D. I assume the desired end result is the end of the Qaddafi regime. Roger Cohen lays out why the proposed no-fly zone is unlikely to bring that end state about. Furthermore, I'd assume "victory" includes his replacement by some more democratic form of government unlikely to (say) support terror attacks aganst American and allied targets at some point in the forseeable future.

E. Two worst-case scenarios: Qaddafi remains in power, and the U.S. and its allies will have spent blood, treasure and prestige fruitlessly. Or Qaddafi is toppled, and (reminiscent of Cold War Afghanistan) replaced by a radical group that either supports or gives refuge to Al Qaeda or some similar group. Bad scenarios; not sure if they're so bad (or so likely) as to inhibit military action.

F. Apparently we don't have money for NPR these days.

You'll notice that some answers seem to offer qualified support for a military intervention. But the answers to the first two questions are the critical, foundational ones. Just because Col. Qaddafi is a bad man doing bad, evil things, does not make it wise for the U.S. to intervene.

Of course, the burden is never on those who support an intervention, really. It's usually on those who would refrain. That's too bad. At least during the Cold War, we believed that our interventions had a place in a larger struggle against totalitarian Communism. These days, we go around intervening ... mostly because we can, it seems. I think that approach invites blowback, and is ultimately unsustainable. Even if Libya ends up being "successful" in some respect, I'm not sure the United States can or should bear the burden of the accumulated Libyas. I haven't seen a compelling reason to intervene. I must oppose this action.

First cookie of spring.

Taken at Almaz Cafe

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Time to end nuclear power?

Events are still unfolding in Japan; Ben Boychuk and I discuss the future of the domestic nuclear power industry in this week's Scripps Howard column. My take:
It's not time to put the kibosh on nuclear power in the United States.

It's also not time to make it a lot easier to build a plant.

And understand: Building a nuclear power plant in the United States is very difficult. It costs lots of money and takes many years of moving through an excruciatingly slow permitting process. Advocates of nuclear power have spent recent years urging that the process be streamlined -- and some environmentalists, seeing nuclear power as an alternative to carbon-belching fossil fuels, have even started to support that view.

They're wrong. The bar to building a nuclear plant should be almost prohibitively high. The permitting process should be slow -- giving engineers and government officials a chance to consider and address all the ways disaster could afflict a plant -- and construction itself remain expensive, in large part because of all the safety measures that must be put in place.

Why? The vast majority of the time, nuclear plants run smoothly. But as Josh Freed, a nuclear power advocate, told the Washington Post: "When nuclear goes wrong, it goes wrong big." The area around the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine, for example, is a virtual no man's land more than 20 years after the disaster there -- and cancer rates for hundreds of miles outside that zone remain precipitously high.

Cheap, mass-produced energy has probably lifted more people out of poverty than any other force. That fact must be acknowledged. But it also comes with a cost -- no matter what form it takes. The health and safety costs that come with nuclear power can be more extreme than most. The disaster in Japan is a warning against the hubristic idea we can ever make it perfectly safe.
Ben's a bit more sanguine about nukes than I am. Read the whole column for his take.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Looking forward to the day Philadelphia residents write for the Philadelphia Daily News*

If there's a trend to Larry Platt's columnist hires at the Philadelphia Daily News—aside from the fact that his "new"voices are familiar faces—it's that many of them seem not to bother being in Philadelphia that much.

Buzz Bissinger lives at least part-time in the Pacific Northwest. Ombudsman Richard Aregood is planted in North Dakota. And Marc Lamont Hill's main professional gig these days is at Columbia University ... in New York. Ed Rendell apparently still lives in Pennsylvania, at least, but he's writing about sports—and despite the former governor's enthusiasm, I actually don't care at all what he thinks about the topic. (I've tried reading his sports columns. They're boring, and would be utterly unremarkable were it not for the fact that Big Ed was writing them.)

Now, these guys all have far deeper roots in Philadelphia than I do, admittedly, so my grounds for criticism are maybe pretty thin. But the great thing about the Daily News has been its relentless focus on the city; filling up the pages with celebrities who have one foot out the door seems like a departure from that mission.

*Part of my ongoing series to ensure I never work for a Philadelphia newspaper, apparently.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

About Virgil Peck, Southeast Kansas, and state legislatures

A friend, knowing that I was born in Southeast Kansas and spent a couple of years working there, asks me about Virgil Peck. He's the state legislator who advocated shooting illegal immigrants like feral swine, then semi-apologized for it by saying: “I was just speaking like a southeast Kansas person."

Is that the way a Southeast Kansas person talks?

Yes. No. Kind of.

Southeast Kansas isn't really what most people think of when they think "Kansas." (I assume most people think flat, full of wheat fields, etc.) It's hilly country, with more trees than the rest of the state, and lots of abandoned mines that flourished a half-century or more ago. It is relatively poor, relatively uneducated, and a fairly depressing place to be. (At least, that's how I saw it during the two years I worked at the Parsons Sun, right after college.) In some ways, it has more in common with Arkansas and the Ozarks—which are relatively nearby—than with any other conception of "Kansas" I've ever held.

There are good people there. There are also a fair number of hillbillies. And there are more than a few people—the ones who remain—who have seen their livelihoods in the mining and railroad industries crumble (almost literally in some cases) from beneath them. And yes, I've heard the occasional suggestion that illegal immigrants be slaughtered by sharpshooters.

I've also heard it outside Southeast Kansas, for that matter. I had one relationship end, in part, because of a similar comment. (It wasn't the straw that broke the camel's back, but it was one of them.) So Virgil Peck wasn't really speaking "like a southeast Kansas person"—he was speaking like a hick. Hicks are everywhere. In Kansas, a lot of them get elected to the Legislature.

This, I gather, is a problem with state legislatures everywhere. There's a certain type of gregarious backslapping dummy who has no real viable skill except to get himself (it's usually men) elected to a low-level job that most locals don't really pay close attention to. They know they hate the "legislature" but they're pretty sure they like Virgil Peck. And the Pecks of the world, despite their all-pervading mediocrity, are convinced they're the smartest people in the world. It's an ugly mix, made more visible by the fact that there's often a reporter or two on the statehouse beat to publicize the more egregious gaffes.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

In defense of Planned Parenthood

Federal funding for Planned Parenthood is this week's topic of my Scripps column with Ben Boychuk. I suspect my pro-choice friends will not think me vigorous enough in defending the right to abortion, but my mindset was to persuade pro-lifers—to the extent they can be convinced—that Planned Parenthood is worthy of federal support. My take:
For many years now, pro-choice liberals have accused pro-life conservatives of being more concerned about the lives of the unborn than they are of living, breathing human beings. Often, that charge is a bit over-the-top and unfair. In the case of the Planned Parenthood debate, it's not.

In the course of a single year, Planned Parenthood carries out nearly 1 million screenings for cervical cancers. More than 800,000 breast exams. It provides contraception to nearly 2.5 million women. And it performs roughly 4 million tests for sexually transmitted diseases.

Planned Parenthood, in other words, helps keep a great many women healthy. The agency's efforts in this regard are for the unmitigated good.

The agency also provides more than 300,000 abortions a year. Federal funding does not directly subsidize those abortions, but let's be honest: If Planned Parenthood crumbles because it loses its federal funding, it can't carry out those abortions. But neither can it do all the other good stuff it does.

Which is why thoughtful abortion opponents should carefully consider their support for the effort to defund Planned Parenthood. Maybe they succeed in putting a dent in the number of abortions -- but they do so at the cost of condemning many women to late detection of (and death from) cervical cancer, breast cancer, HIV and more. Is that trade-off worth it?

Other conservatives will argue that, in a time of belt-tightening, the federal government can't afford to subsidize every good thing. Perhaps that's true, and we should set priorities. Public health, it seems, should be among the highest priorities -- a society can't function if it's sick and dying. Women's health is a huge part of public health.

And Planned Parenthood is perhaps the most reliable provider of women's health services. The funding should stay.
Ben has a different take, obviously. Click the link to read his side.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A quick note about James O'Keefe and 'undercover journalism'

James O'Keefe has a couple of NPR scalps on his belt, and good for him I guess. Jonah Goldberg tweets, "I remember when undercover stings are what made '60 Minutes' America's greatest journalistic enterprise," presumably hitting at hypocrite liberals who are irritated by O'Keefe's stings.

But O'Keefe's brand of journalism owes more to "Borat" than to "60 Minutes." In Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen's M.O. was to walk into situations and be the biggest, most annoying jerk he could. Sometimes people were irritated, in which case the comedy came from their consternation, or they remained polite—in which case the comedy came from them accommodating a huge jerk in their midst.

O'Keefe, I don't think, has ever unconvered real malfeasance at the organization he targets. Instead, he's mostly taken advantage of humankind's natural tendency to avoid confrontation or to be a little too solicitous. He's the kind of guy who'd videotape you listening to your grandfather's racist grumblings with a strained smile on your face, then release it to Fox News as an exposé of your own racism.

Most people aren't inclined to loudly confront wrongheaded people they've just met. As long as that impulse exists, James O'Keefe will have plenty more exposes he can release.

In the New York Times: Blaming the 11-year-old victim of a gang rape?

An awful story this morning from Texas, where 18 young men and teen boys are under suspicion for gang-raping an 11-year-old girl—under threat of being beaten if she didn't comply. The story includes this paragraph:
Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.
I try to avoid using this language in public, mostly, but I think it might be appropriate here: Fuck. That. Shit.

This paragraph doesn't explicitly say that the 11-year-old girl brought a gang rape under threat of beating upon herself, but it certainly implies it. And it does so, as far as I can tell, without any pushback from a responsible person who might say, quite reasonably: "No matter how an 11-year-old girl dresses, there is never a reason or an excuse or any kind of mitigation for threatening to beat a woman and then raping her. Ever."

Instead, the story we're treated to is one in which we exclusively from people who feel some level of sympathy for the rapists:
The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?

“It’s just destroyed our community,” said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”
The Times, I gather, didn't make contact with the girl or her mother. Still, it would've been nice to have this story feature the voice of somebody saying, essentially, "This girl will have to live with this the rest of her life." We never do. Instead, we're treated to a version of adolescent slut-shaming. The Times can and should do much better than this.

NYT: Nation better prepared for rising gas prices

I, too, am better prepared for the rising cost of gasoline this time around. I live in the city and don't have a car!

It's true that some of my costs will still go up, in the form of rising prices on food and goods that have been shipped to Philadelphia, where I live. But not having and using a car provides a rather substantial cushion against the shock of an oil-price spike. I guess this lifestyle isn't for everybody, but—despite the overall higher costs of living in a city than living in Kansas—it's probably better-suited to my pocketbook.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Today in inequality reading: CAP and employee compensation

One of the things that has struck me as unjust about growing income inequality in the United States is that American workers have vastly increased their productivity over the last three decades—and yet have seen almost no income growth as a result. Today, the Center for American Progress offers a suggestion to solve that issue—suggesting, in essence, that all employees (and not just top executives) share in a firm's growing wealth:
The reform encourages firms to develop broad-based incentive compensation systems that link employee earnings to the performance of the firm. This reform would give employees access to the capital-related earnings of their companies comparable to that of the senior executives who run these firms.

Specifically, our plan would give favorable tax treatment to compensation systems that link incentive pay to company performance if all of the company’s full-time employees participated in them and if the value expended on the top 5 percent of employees by salary was also expended on the bottom 80 percent of employees by salary.
I've not read through the details of the report, and I don't really know what arguments exist against encouraging firms to spread performance-based compensation down the food chain. But I do suspect that publicly traded firms have rewarded CEOs based on quarterly reports and how they affect a company's stock price—encouraging top leaders to focus on short-term tricks rather than the long-term value of their company. If this suggestion would exacerbate that problem, I'd be hesitant. Republicans, I suspect, will cry "socialism" over the matter—but if it's a choice between better-compensating employees in order to get a tax break or having taxes taken and redistributed to support the safety net, I imagine they could be convinced to support the former.

Fan mail: Charlie Sheen

Ed Spondike, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite correspondents, writes in response to this week's Scripps column about Charlie Sheen. An excerpt:
I must comment on one statement that was in your column. "Too much wealth and privilege can be corrosive in the wrong hands. And there's nothing Americans love more than watching the rich and powerful crash and burn." Unfortunately, I have to disagree this statement. Entertainers, including actors, singers, and sports stars, constantly are given multiple chances to redeem themselves from crime and bad behavior. Most of the people who idolize them seem to be quite willing to forgive their transgressions, and in some cases, actually excuse their behavior.
My response: I do think we like to see the rich and powerful crash and burn. But we're all human: We also like to see a good redemption story. If Charlie Sheen can pull himself out of the crazy spiral and come back in five years to earn an Oscar nomination, Americans will eat it up—particularly if he gives some contrite, wrly self-deprecating interviews on TV. There are plenty of second acts in American life. That doesn't mean we don't also enjoy watching train wrecks.

Solving the library e-book problem

HarperCollins has announced that it will allow libraries to lend e-books 26 times before demanding those libraries pay, essentially, a replacement fee:
Its sales president, Josh Marwell, believes that's only fair: 26, he claims, is the average number of loans a print book would survive before having to be replaced. ... Clearly, printed books last a lot longer than 26 loans," says Philip Bradley, vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals.
I'm also skeptical that a print book only lasts 26 checkouts. And I'm interested in the topic since I finished reading an e-book edition of Neil Sheehan's "A Fiery Peace in a Cold War" that was "borrowed" from the Philadelphia Free Library. What's frustrating about HarperCollins' idea is that it tries to force a print-book scarcity business model upon e-books. That's unnecessary, and probably dumb. Why not come up with a new model that fits the new medium?

Here's what I suggest:

• Instead of forcing libraries to "purchase" e-books and then purchase replacement copies, publishers should set up a subscription-type licensing service. Charge the libraries (say) a $50 annual fee to make 100 e-books available. (I'm throwing out a number, here, for the sake of argument.) That gives the publishers the renewable source of income they need to continue operating without imposing silly rules.

• The libraries would be bound by somewhat similar rules as they are now. If they wanted to have, say, 10 copies of a "Harry Potter" book as part of their 100 licensed books, they could, but each book could only be checked out one at a time: If 10 people were already reading "Harry Potter" then subsequent readers would have to wait until a copy was free. That would prevent people from bypassing paid e-books entirely—lots of people want their copy of a book now, or they want access to their copy in something like perpetuity—leaving libraries in something like the same role they fulfill now. And libraries could revise their stock at any time, discarding five Harry Potter licenses when the book becomes less popular in favor of other selections.

Full-disclosure: This idea is inspired by my Macworld colleague Lex Friedman, who has written about wanting to see a "Netflix for e-books."

In any case, it's clearly silly to make a library purchase a "new" e-book when the "old" e-book hasn't (and can't) degrade in the same way as a print book. Rather than force libraries to live by a model that doesn't fit the digital medium, make a new model. HarperCollins' solution is short-sighted and doesn't actually serve its customers all that well.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The only thing I plan to write about Charlie Sheen

Believe it or not, that's what this week's Scripps column is about. It started out as a response to S.T. Karnick's blog post at The American Culture asserting that Sheen's recent Tour of Self-Destruction signified some deeper illness in American society—an illness due to "moral relativism."

My take:
Is there a larger societal lesson to be learned from Charlie Sheen? Not really.

If Sheen has taught us anything, it's stuff we've known for a long time: Too much wealth and privilege can be corrosive in the wrong hands. And there's nothing Americans love more than watching the rich and powerful crash and burn.

But nobody's really endorsing Sheen's behavior or making excuses for him. Where's the relativism? Who is looking at Sheen and offering him up as an example for our youth? Who is endorsing the idea that it is OK to go on cocaine binges, abuse your wife and flake out on your job ... if that's what you really want to do? Nobody, except perhaps for the straw men who exist in the imaginations of moral scolds among us.

If there's hay to be made here, perhaps it's in the fact that so many Americans have made sport of Sheen's erratic and bizarre media appearances. Who hasn't made or heard a Charlie Sheen joke in recent weeks? The man appears to be destroying his career and many of his relationships, yet we treat the whole matter like it's another, somewhat diverting episode of his sitcom. It's ugly and sordid: Pass the popcorn.

Even then, it's hard to get worked up: Such impulses are as old as gladiator fights, the bearded lady at the circus, and rubbernecking at car crashes. Humans rarely turn their eyes away from disasters and mayhem. Sheen seems to be providing plenty of both.

What's he getting for his efforts? A lost job, apparently. The mockery of an entire nation. Perhaps a lawsuit or two. Charlie Sheen is nobody's hero. If that's moral relativism, heaven help us when America finds its moral rectitude again.
Quick note: "Moral scolds," in retrospect, is a kind of easy name-calling I wish I'd avoided.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

On Westboro, Sarah Palin and the First Amendment

Sarah Palin doesn't like the Westboro decision:
Common sense & decency absent as wacko "church" allowed hate msgs spewed@ soldiers' funerals but we can't invoke God's name in public square
So let me just point out: Today's decision further guarantees the right of Palin to march her family and her church down to a public square and talk about God all they want! By protecting Fred Phelps' right to speech, Palin's rights have been preserved, too!

Of course, Palin isn't talking about the right of individuals to proclaim their views and faith in public. She's talking about the right of government to essentially subsidize and sponsor religious expressions in the public square. And ... that's not what government is supposed to do. It's prohibited. And for good reason.

Either Palin doesn't understand the distinction, or she's demagoguing it. Either way, shame on her for trying to make her fellow Americans dumber about the issues at stake.

Samuel Alito's weird dissent in the Westboro case

Samuel Alito offered the only dissent to today's Supreme Court ruling affirming the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to mount its anti-gay pickets at military funerals. If I read the dissent correctly, he claims the First Amendment didn't protect Westboro's picket of Matthew Snyder's funeral because some of picketing material might've implied that Snyder himself—a private individual—was gay:
Other signs would most naturally have been understood
as suggesting—falsely—that Matthew was gay. Homosexuality was the theme of many of the signs. There were
signs reading “God Hates Fags,” “Semper Fi Fags,” “Fags
Doom Nations,” and “Fag Troops.” Id., at 3781–3787.
Another placard depicted two men engaging in anal intercourse. A reasonable bystander seeing those signs would
have likely concluded that they were meant to suggest
that the deceased was a homosexual.
And later:
In light of this evidence, it is abundantly clear that
respondents, going far beyond commentary on matters of
public concern, specifically attacked Matthew Snyder
because (1) he was a Catholic and (2) he was a member of
the United States military. Both Matthew and petitioner
were private figures,16
and this attack was not speech on a
matter of public concern. While commentary on the Catholic Church or the United States military constitutes
speech on matters of public concern, speech regarding
Matthew Snyder’s purely private conduct does not.
Even if Westboro has the right to demonstrate against Catholicism and the U.S. military, in other words, the church doesn't have a right to cast a false light on a private individual's behavior. Which: So far so good. That's true. But Alito brings his point home in a way that I find confusing:
I fail to see why actionable
speech should be immunized simply because it is interspersed with speech that is protected. The First Amendment allows recovery for defamatory statements that are
interspersed with nondefamatory statements on matters
of public concern, and there is no good reason why respondents’ attack on Matthew Snyder and his family should be
treated differently.
There's one potential problem with this: As I understand it, you can't libel the dead—and you can't defame the dead either. "As a rule, you cannot defame the dead. Under the law, the right to not be defamed is a personal right – only the person in question can sue for defamation. Therefore, a family member cannot bring a claim against you." And Matthew Snyder is, of course, dead.

Is there some sort of right to privacy that private figures retain in death that public figures don't? Because on the face of it, Alito's dissent stretches for a pretty iffy reading of the law in order to justify trampling Westboro's First Amendment rights. What am I missing?

Chief Justice Roberts: Protecting Westboro's hate speech makes America great

And I agree:
Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move
them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—
inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react
to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we
have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful
speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle
public debate. That choice requires that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case.

More quotes from the SCOTUS ruling on Westboro Baptist Church

I find this section interesting:
Westboro’s choice to convey its views in conjunction with
Matthew Snyder’s funeral made the expression of those
views particularly hurtful to many, especially to Matthew’s father. The record makes clear that the applicable
legal term—“emotional distress”—fails to capture fully the
anguish Westboro’s choice added to Mr. Snyder’s already
incalculable grief. But Westboro conducted its picketing
peacefully on matters of public concern at a public place
adjacent to a public street. Such space occupies a “special
position in terms of First Amendment protection.”


Simply put, the church members had the right to be
where they were. Westboro alerted local authorities to its
funeral protest and fully complied with police guidance on
where the picketing could be staged. The picketing was
conducted under police supervision some 1,000 feet from
the church, out of the sight of those at the church. The
protest was not unruly; there was no shouting, profanity,
or violence.

The record confirms that any distress occasioned by
Westboro’s picketing turned on the content and viewpoint
of the message conveyed, rather than any interference
with the funeral itself. A group of parishioners standing
at the very spot where Westboro stood, holding signs that
said “God Bless America” and “God Loves You,” would not
have been subjected to liability. It was what Westboro
said that exposed it to tort damages.

Westboro Baptist Church wins in the Supreme Court. Good.

Still reading the SCOTUS ruling, but here's a key part early:
Westboro addressed matters of public import on public property, in a peaceful manner, in full compliance with the guidance of local officials. It did not disrupt Mathew Snyder’s funeral, and its choice to picket at that time and place did not alter the nature of its
speech. Because this Nation has chosen to protect even hurtful
speech on public issues to ensure that public debate is not stifled,
Westboro must be shielded from tort liability for its picketing in this
I think this is the right decision. As I wrote in the Scripps column last October:
The case has been broadly portrayed as the church causing offense by inflicting itself upon a grieving family at the funeral of Snyder's son. The facts are somewhat different. Westboro members did indeed set up a picket -- but as required by law, they were 1,000 feet away from the funeral when it occurred. Snyder's family only encountered Phelps' vile words through after-the-fact news reports and a visit to Westboro's website.

Fred Phelps didn't inflict himself on Albert Snyder, in other words; Snyder subjected himself to Phelps' message. It's thus difficult to see how any exception to the First Amendment, however narrow, would fit this case. Under these circumstances, a court ruling against Phelps could only be seen as punishment for having and expressing the wrong beliefs. As repugnant as those beliefs are, that's not supposed to happen in America.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

About that NYT poll on unions

It would be nice if the Times' poll focused on the feelings of Wisconsin residents. But since the assault on unions transcends Wisconsin, the poll is still valuable. Here's what it finds:
Americans oppose weakening the bargaining rights of public employee unions by a margin of nearly two to one: 60 percent to 33 percent. While a slim majority of Republicans favored taking away some bargaining rights, they were outnumbered by large majorities of Democrats and independents who said they opposed weakening them.
Now: If I remember my health care debate correctly, Republicans believe that polls showing this level of opposition to a policy makes that policy democratically illegitimate. I'm sure they'll follow through on their rhetoric and cease their union-busting activities immediately.