Monday, December 29, 2008

But wait, a flash of brilliance appears

I know that everybody probably has something to say about what's happening in Gaza today, and I doubt I have much to add. Bush and Obama are echoing each other, Israel has the right to defend itself, it should try to limit civilian casualties, etc. Although I did see Israel's ambassador to the US on CNN's Situation Room today talking about how fear of Hamas rockets is causing Israeli children to wet their beds. I think he said it several times. And while nobody hates bed-wetting more than Americans, I thought this was an odd note to strike.

What this offensive makes me wonder about, though, is where this is all going. I mean, it's well and good to talk about Israel's rights, but enforcing those rights doesn't make much sense if doing so won't help advance the peace process. And I've never understood how this posture towards Hamas, first shunning them and now attacking them, is supposed to help resolve anything. Because even if Israel does manage to destroy Hamas, what Hamas represents will remain alive and well. In fact, all of this likely strengthens the hand of the extremists and calcifies Palestinian anger at Israel.

I have no love for Hamas. But they did win an election that everybody agrees was free and fair. And until somebody deals with the underlying conditions that brought them to power, this situation will not improve.

Blog born dead

I know, I know, all six of you, you're disappointed, distraught, you expected so much more from me. Well, the holidays are upon us, just came back from family time, leaving for Mexico tomorrow, and cannot be expected to have any interesting thoughts (although I might post one other thing of substance today, so keep your eyes peeled). But until I return, here's an awesome video of TV on the Radio doing Young Liars. Enjoy, and all my best.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The opacity of hope

Reaction to Obama’s choice of Rick Warren has been swift and predictable. People are unhappy. I don’t blame them. And, as my first substantive post should demonstrate, I take a dim view of the role religion plays in our politics.

I don’t know why Obama chose Warren. There are different ways to read this. Maybe Obama finds common cause with Warren on many issues, and doesn’t consider his views on same-sex marriage and abortion (and whatever other odious views he has) deal-breakers. Maybe he wants to strike an inclusive tone, painting the Democratic Party as the one with a bigger tent. Or maybe it’s just a cynical play for political capital, a bone to moderate evangelicals that will help Obama push through the first elements of his agenda. I’m sure there are other possibilities.

What I don’t understand is why this move surprises anyone. I guess a campaign based on hope would damage our cynicism. But people who expect to dine on more than half a loaf during the next four years should realize that their eyes are bigger than Obama’s stomach.

The need for Democratic presidential candidates to become everything to everyone has become an inexorable part of the party’s ethos. You have to step back from the Bush’s stance on torture, but not without rattling enough sabers to ensure everyone that you’re tough on national security. You need to pay lip service to Palestinians, but never allow the GOP to out-Israel you. You need to seem open-minded, but not say anything too critical about our most extreme Christian religious zealots.

This isn’t something that the Obama campaign rejected. This is something it embodied. The focus on branding, the big slogans, the lofty rhetoric, this is all part of embracing a politics that has more to do with striking the perfect balance than putting forth and defending an ambitious, detailed agenda.

I’m not suggesting that Obama doesn’t have such an agenda in mind. I’m sure he does. But the politics that brought him to power don’t give us reason for disappointment or excuse for surprise. The Rick Warrens of the world are here to stay.

Monday, December 15, 2008

For my adoring reader(s)

As I climb towards 200 visits (most of them me, I think), I know that you are all dying to know more about me. Well, here's a tidbit: courtesy of Netflix streaming through my XBox 360, I've taken quite a liking to 30 Rock. And I think this clip tells you everything you need to know about why.

Get used to it

Me being wrong, that is. Here are apparently the real reasons for why Rod's arrest went the way it did.

Hat tip to qwikzotik.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

But I just turned up the thermostat....

Of all the arguments people make about climate change, ones like this from Vox Day are my favorites. Dig, if you will, this paean to logic:
I'm quite confident that the "global warming" concept is a complete crock on both historical and anecdotal grounds. We have palm trees in our backyard, but already this winter, and last winter as well, we've had more snow than we'd seen in the previous ten years combined.
This comes after s/he cites this article about snow in Houston as evidence that global warming is not a problem. Because it's getting colder, idiots.

But what do we do on the next unseasonably warm day in Chicago? I guess that'll mean that the whole global warming thing is back on.

Why can't this stupid planet just make up its mind?

Who does this Rawls think he is?

One of the things I’ve decided to do with my impending increase in free time is to revisit philosophy. Before I went to law school I wanted to go get a Ph.D. in philosophy. I applied to a few prestigious programs and they all rejected me. I guess that might have left me disenchanted, and, in any case, law school didn’t provide me many opportunities to do what I’m about to.

I’ve decided to go through certain books, study them, reexamine them. The first book I decided to read is A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. I’ve never read most of it, although there are parts of it, where he lays out his basic theory, that I spent a fair amount of time with. Despite that, it still is probably one of the most important books, in terms of shaping my perspective. But more on that later; I just started.

The one thing I wanted to mention, though, is how refreshing it is to read something without so many footnotes or citations. Legal writing is so full of attribution. For instance, law review articles have so many footnotes on each page. And it’s irritating. I never know if I’m supposed to read them, I’m always wondering what they say if I ignore them, so I can’t focus on just figuring out what the argument is.

And this hatred of footnotes reminded me of one of the things I always liked about philosophy. Unlike legal arguments, philosophical arguments don’t depend on what came before them. They don’t require support in statute or precedent. They’re good insofar as you can defend them and nobody can explain why they’re wrong.

In Theory, Rawls is relying on many people who came before him. He’s drawing on some of the greatest thinkers the world has ever seen. But his ideas are his own. They are mostly just coming out of his head, and they stand or fall on their own. In fact, they wouldn’t have much value if they came from someplace else. In the law, an idea is only as good as the support you can find. That can be frustrating, because the law is often wrong. Sometimes it’s so wrong, it blows your mind. And thinking outside those constraints, especially as the winter of my discontent (with the law) falls, feels liberating.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Case Against the Case Against Blagojevich

Because the case for would be too much. But my usual contrarian mood forces me to say what there is to be said in the man’s favor.

First, the laughs seem more authentic than the disgust. Which is to say, does anybody think that this sort of political horse-trading is all that uncommon, especially in Chicago or Illinois today? I mean, the part about trying to get a straight-up bribe, that’s over the top. But trying to parlay current political power into future success or campaign contributions? That is the stock and trade of pay-to-play politics. And that’s not a system Rod (I won’t keep typing his last name, too fraught with peril) created, nor is he the only one perpetuating it. Nothing about rolling his high-profile head, without more, makes me believe this situation is going to improve.

Second, from the perspective of procedural justice, I’m not sure how comfortable I am with Fitzgerald’s presser yesterday. It made for great TV, but that’s the problem. I don’t know if Rod could have gotten a fair trial absent yesterday’s show, but I’m dead certain he can’t get one now.

Fitzgerald is nobody’s fool, and no stranger to high-profile prosecutions. And we are in a slow news cycle, where it doesn’t take much to rip the CNNs of the world from wall-to-wall coverage of who’s going to be named Car Czar. Fitzgerald had to know that those sound bites would play in a loop all day. They were red meat thrown into a pit of hungry, feral dogs. And the media storyline developed quickly: this guy is the craziest, most selfish, most corrupt politician the world has ever seen.

Now, maybe he is. But that should be decided in a court of law. And it never will, not fairly, not in the state of Illinois, probably not in any state in the union at this point.

I have a theory as to why Fitzgerald approached this the way he did. He seems to have believed that Rod was actually in the process of selling Barack Obama’s seat. I once heard a couple of police officers talk about how, if they received a reliable tip about some drugs in, say, the trunk of the car, they would go seize those drugs, even if they weren’t sure the search would hold up in court. Here, maybe Fitzgerald was more concerned about stopping Rod from tainting the Senate than convicting him. Perhaps he reasoned that, by going this far in announcing in the indictment, he all but ensured that Rod would not be able to choose the next senator.

Maybe that was the right choice. These are tough values to weigh. But I do think that Fitzgerald's presser seemed like a cross between a public stoning and a stand-up routine. And that’s probably not the best way to maintain the integrity of whatever legal process awaits our always well-coiffed governor.

Forcing the Issue

Apropos of the budding discussion in the comments to my last post, Andrew Sullivan has posted some conservative reactions to the Newsweek piece. One debate in the comments has focused on whether making these arguments is nevertheless worth it, politically, insofar as Bible-based arguments like Miller's might convince Christians to support same-sex marriage. I am skeptical of whether that's the case. But I do think that the comments from Ralph Reed quoted by Sullivan at the link above suggest another possible reason for making these arguments.

Apparently, Reed was angry because he felt the piece reduced religious conservative arguments against same-sex marriage to "some formulaic, scriptural literalism." Instead, there's apparently "more of a practical, sociological foundation for why we seek to affirm marriage."

To this, I say bring it on. Because I think the "practical, sociological" implications are pretty clear here. And if arguments like Miller's throw the scriptural debate into confusion and force people like Reed to make empirical arguments, they might serve an important role. At very least, I think that's one possible case that can be made for putting those arguments out there.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Whose Christianity?

A few naysayers notwithstanding, a celebratory mood has come over the American left. But circumstances have conspired to keep some sand in the vaseline. In particular, these days have not been perspicuous for left-leaning Christians. Conservative Episcopalians have torn asunder their communion. And the nation still smarts from a bruising, religion-infused battle over same-sex marriage in California. Apparently, even the state that rains pornography upon us, coming through the wires like manna from heaven, couldn’t be depended on to stop zealots who think that the law ought to keep homosexuals from visiting their partners in the hospital.

A number of arguments have sprung up to explain why same-sex marriage should be legal. Unsurprisingly, one of those arguments attempts to beat Christian opponents of same-sex marriage at their own game. This line of argument is nothing new. But I suspect that we will see more of its ilk in the months and years to come, as same-sex marriage advocates attempt to appeal to whoever it is in the mucky middle of American politics that will end up deciding this issue.

One prominent place where such an argument is being made is in the December 15, 2008 issue of Newsweek, whose cover promises that Lisa Miller will lay out “The Religious Case for Gay Marriage.” (As an aside, “religious” is an odd choice here, given that the otherwise white cover is also adorned by the Holy Bible, crucifix on the front, rainbow-colored bookmark inside the book near the beginning, perhaps marking one of those verses in Leviticus opponents of same-sex marriage love to quote. Nobody at Newsweek seems worried about whether Krishna or Odin approves of same-sex unions. But this is a discussion for another day.)

In keeping with arguments of this type, Miller lays out two basic, connected arguments for why Christianity actually supports same-sex marriage:
1) The Bible contains tons of outdated rules that nobody follows and have no relevance to modern life.
2) The core principles of Christianity, properly understood, argue for allowing same-sex couples to marry.
My purpose here is not to directly engage with either of these arguments. I am no theologian. Instead, my purpose is to explain how these arguments illustrate why this debate has no place in a discussion of public policy.

Miller begins by covering some familiar ground. Some Christians want to define marriage narrowly today, but they should take a look at what actually happened in the Bible. Abraham slept around, the Old Testament good guys are a bunch of polygamists and Jesus and St. Paul would rather have us not get married at all. And besides, those outdated parts of the Bible that condemn homosexuality, they also tell us about “treatments for leprosy, cleanliness rituals for menstruating women and the correct way to sacrifice a goat—or a lamb or turtle dove.” In this age of serial monogamy, modern medicine, sanitary napkins and factory farming, nobody cares about any of this any more. So, if these rules are useless, but we still want to be Christians, where do we look?

Apparently we look to “biblical values.” Amongst those values, Miller singles out “acceptance of all,” “inclusion, even in defiance of social convention” and others.

And that’s well and good. Those are good values. But I am at a loss as to how this theological debate helps us decide whether the state should recognize same-sex marriages. Miller is too. And she betrays this in her piece. After arguing that various passages in the Bible don’t lend conclusive support to the prohibition against same-sex marriage, Miller concludes, “Religious objections to gay marriage are rooted not in the Bible at all, then, but in custom and tradition (and, to talk turkey for a minute, a personal discomfort with gay sex that transcends theological argument)” (emphasis mine). Now, I’m all for the argument that many Christians leaders have bamboozled their flocks with a few Bible verses into embracing homophobia. But, since we’re turkey-talking here: the Biblical roots for this homophobia, however shallow, are real. These verses might be taken out of context, but they’re not taken out of nowhere.

Contrast that conclusion with a quotation Miller attributes to “great Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann,” that “[t]he religious argument for gay marriage… ‘is not generally made with reference to particular texts, but with the general conviction that the Bible is bent toward inclusiveness.’” Bruggemann’s point about the “bent” of the Bible is a far cry from Miller’s claims that Christian arguments against same-sex marriage are not based on the Bible “at all.”

And, as I’ve said several times throughout, I don’t know what the Bible says. But what’s become clear here is that neither does Lisa Miller, or Walter Bruggemann, or Mormon Prophet Thomas S. Monson or anybody else.

Now, I acknowledge that figuring out what the Bible says is of profound importance to Christians. But I would hope (against hope, likely) that those same Christians would acknowledge back that answering those questions should not have anything to do with who gets to see who on their deathbed or who gets to adopt children.

This is why defending Christianity’s role in a public policy debate presents a problem. Without that perspective, nobody would think that resolving a debate about same-sex marriage should depend on how best to interpret a convoluted religious text written by men claiming to speak for God.

And anybody who repeats the same tired slogans, that this is a Christian nation founded on Christian values where Christianity should have a voice in deciding this and other issues, should explain what that means. Whose Christianity? Which Christian values? Because if we’re talking about the outdated laws from Leviticus, we don’t want Christianity in the public square. And if we’re talking about general slogans we can all agree on, we don’t need it.

People turn to Christianity, as with any other religion I would imagine, for a variety of reasons. Some people like the values Miller mentions. Some people like other values, or interpret those values in different ways. Some people like some of the outdated rules. And none of these people can make an argument that knocks out their rivals. None of them can lay claim to the one Christianity.

I hope Miller is right. I hope Christianity commands its followers to support same-sex marriage. But I’m not sure it does, and I am sure that nothing is as clear as Miller wishes it were. If it condemns homosexuality, all the worse for the Bible. But, if it does, why should it be the worse for us?

Excitment Just Entered the Building

So, I’ve decided to start a blog. I hope I’ll have a few interesting things to say. I suspect most of it will focus on politics, broadly understood, although I’m sure that I’ll have things to say about a whole bunch of other stuff that interests me, from music to sports to books to food to how awesome I am.

But in general, I have one goal here. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. Instead, I want to grant people (especially the conservatives I most often disagree with) their greatest wish: to be taken seriously. I plan to take all these arguments people make completely seriously, and, by doing so, hopefully reveal how seriously misguided they are.

Well, I’ll try to be serious.

And fail. But hopefully it’ll be fun to watch.

As a side note, I’m adopting Warren Ellis’s message board policy for any commenting that might happen here. Because a policy is an important thing to have, given the rush of people I expect to start commenting here any minute. But still, I like it, so I’m adopting it. Some of the stuff, about posting material or whether this blog's is safe for work, doesn’t really apply here, but I think the rest gets it just about right.

And seriously, if you’ve read this much, thanks for coming. Any feedback is appreciated.