Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Zayn Malik doesn't identify as Muslim: "I don't believe any of it"

In the British Vogue, Giles Hattersley writes of Zayn Malik:’s a simple “Zayn” these days, ever since the 25-year-old boyband survivor from Bradford with perfect hair and poptastic falsetto dispensed with his surname and went fully Cher. That was a year after he fled One Direction, in March 2015, when the world’s most successful group was at the hormone-addled apex of its fame. For a brief moment, Zayn was the YouTube generation’s answer to John Lennon (or Geri Halliwell, at least), devastating millions of fans across the globe with his shotgun exit, then thrilling them a year later with a record-breaking, Billboard-topping debut album. He moved to the States, clocked up billions of streams, dueted with Taylor Swift, shot campaigns for Versus and endured the peculiar menace of having a dozen paparazzi camped outside his door every day. He also became an international figurehead for biracial success and anti-Islamophobia. And I mentioned the hair, right?

While he's "routinely touted as Britain’s most famous Muslim," he told the interviewer that he believes in God, but not in Hell, and that he prefers to keep his beliefs private and wouldn't call himself a Muslim today. He simply wants to be "a good person" and "behave well," and he hopes that this will result in his being "treated well" so that "everything is going to go right" for him.

He says: "I don’t believe you need to eat a certain meat that’s been prayed over a certain way, I don’t believe you need to read a prayer in a certain language five times a day. I don’t believe any of it."

Some may see this as lending new meaning to the lyrics to his song "iT's YoU" (you can listen to it on Apple Music or buy it on iTunes):

I won't, I won't, I won't
Cover the scars
I'll let 'em bleed
So my silence
So my silence won't
Be mistaken for peace

That is, we cannot consent to let others continue to hurt us, and if they do hurt us, they cannot expect us to take it silently. When we acknowledge what is hurting, we may be seen arguing (not keeping the peace), but that argument is essential to honesty and survival. For some, this may describe how they feel affected by religion.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

LGBT people struggle to survive a purge in Tanzania

In Tanzania, the Dar es Salaam regional commissioner has asked the public to report gay people. "Give me their names," he said on Oct. 29. "My ad hoc team"—a committee of 17 police and media officials—"will begin to get their hands on them" in just one week. The next day, he reported that he'd already received over 100 names in over five thousand messages. Although the Tanzanian government clarified that this regional effort does not represent the national government's official policy, it was not clear if the national government intended to stop the Dar es Salaam regional purge.


Tanzanian law, an inheritance from British colonialism, punishes men who have sex with other men with 30-years-to-life in jail. Recently, LGBT organizations have been shuttered. In February 2017, Tanzania's deputy health minister claimed that homosexuality is not found among animals, only exists among people who live in cities, and is a social construct. The health ministry prohibited HIV/AIDS clinics from running their programs, and then arrested 13 people—including deporting three South African lawyers—who met to discuss how to challenge that new policy. The shutdown of the clinics and the arrest of the activists was done on the grounds that it is illegal to promote homosexuality.

According to a Guardian article: Geofrey Mashala, an activist who is "making a documentary about the Tanzanian LGBT community," said that, considering “all the steps we made as LGBT activists" over the past several years, "it’s like we have to start over again.” Erin Kilbride of the human rights group Front Line Defenders interviewed 80 LGBT people and sex workers earlier this year; "all but two said they had been sexually assaulted or raped by police in custody."

Monday, October 29, 2018

Ways one oughtn't respond to anti-Semitic domestic terrorism

On Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, eleven Jews were murdered while worshipping in a synagogue in Pennsylvania. The President tweeted this:

Later that evening, the President appeared at a self-promotional rally and joked about nearly having canceled it — not because he believed the morning's tragedy warranted more attention or solemnity from him, but because standing in the rain to give a news conference about the attack had caused him to have a "bad hair day."

To cap off the evening, he tweeted:

By Monday, Oct. 29, the President returned to his usual authoritarian line that the media is the "enemy of the people." His press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, came up with a "both sides" explanation: "I think the president has had a number of moments of bringing the country together. Once again, I'll remind you that the very first thing the president did was condemn the attacker. And the very first thing the media did was blame the president." Kellyanne Conway, an advisor to the president, suggested that late-night television comedians in particular bore responsibility for triggering anti-Semitic violence. She Christian-splained that the Jews "were there [in the synagogue] because they're people of faith," that comedians have unfortunately made a culture in which it's usual "to make fun of anybody of faith, to constantly be making fun of people that express religion," and that what is needed is more religion in "the public square." (Diaspora Jews, on the whole, have always been really quite skeptical about religion in the public square.)

The President, for his part, took a different tack in claiming that he had not meant to generalize about "the media," but had only meant to refer to the media that is "fake."

Meanwhile, the Vice President invited clergy of the Messianic Jewish religion — a religious movement that most Jews recognize as Christian and that they resent for being culturally appropriative and theologically deceptive in their deliberate mimickry of Judaism — to publicly speak about the matter. The Messianic Jew prayed for Republican victory.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Logical errors in 'Gender Identity and the Invisible Pasta God'

Some words about Stephen Measure's satirical short story Gender Identity and the Invisible Pasta God.

Measure currently sorts his writing into three topics on his website.

  • "Same-sex sexuality," further explained thus: "Sexual identity is an anti-moral weapon, nothing more."
  • "Gender identity," defined as "a religious belief that I don't believe in."
  • "Dehumanization," or, what he fears the people he opposes will do to him.

If these sentences are a little difficult to parse, just use the takeaway that his position is basically anti-LGBT. He maintains that everyone (or nearly everyone) is physically either male or female, that people cannot or should not claim a gender identity based on their subjective feelings rather than their physical sex, and that people should not engage in sexual activity with members of the same sex. He doesn't seem especially interested or curious in LGBT people's beliefs or lives, and his main concern is that he should not be accused of bigotry for holding this position.

Had I known this, I might not have paid three dollars for his eBook, Gender Identity and the Invisible Pasta God. But his stance was not obvious from the book description, so I pressed the button and read the book, and here we are.

The book is a brief discourse (about 40 pages) against the idea that people should respect each other's gender identity. It begins as a fictional story focusing on a character so juvenile, awkward, and obnoxious that my burning question from the very first page was not "What will happen next in this story?" but rather "Can anything possibly redeem this character, or at least help me relate to him, over the course of this story?" The answer to the latter question turned out to be "no." There really wasn't a story anyway. The characters's existence is a mere plot device because he sits in a chair for the entire book — wearing a colander on his head — and is lectured to, along with an audience full of passive people wearing the same headgear, by two unnamed white men.

If the lecture were good, that would count for something. It is not. It is a straw man. It has enough material for a weak op-ed, but that is painfully stretched across dozens of pages. Its talking points are simply repeated and they do not gain force. One of the two lecturing men seems to fatigue from the repetition and he essentially drops out of the argument, so the other man (the one with whom Measure sympathizes) wins by default.

The anti-transgender proponent is "Goatee man" (a manly man, you see) and the pro-transgender devil's advocate is "Ponytail man" (a hipster fop). Each of their arguments is undeveloped, both on a philosophical level and in lacking personal history (after all, the author didn't even bother to name the characters). Goatee man has at least mastered his own argument, rudimentary though it is, perhaps on about a high school level. Ponytail man is thoroughly inarticulate and, upon being questioned, quickly decompensates into cursing, complaining about being tone-policed, and then babbling idiocy. He even drools on himself.

The debate is over people who assert gender identities different from the genders originally assigned to them based on their physical sex. Ponytail man's premise is that everyone should respect everyone else's asserted gender identity, including by allowing everyone to enter the bathroom (men's or women's) of their choice. Ponytail man insists that he is secular and that his opinion is based on science. The science to which he refers is "brain scan" studies that have shown that some transgender people exhibit brain activity more typical of the gender with which they identify and less typical of the gender assigned to them at birth, suggesting that gender has a scientifically demonstrable reality in the mind or perhaps that the brain has a sex.

Goatee man, for his part, says that he sometimes maintains beliefs based on science "because they can be proven to me" and other times based on religion "because I choose to believe them." Later, he says: "Science is shared through proof. Religion is shared through persuasion." These two descriptions of religion are potentially contradictory. If religion is something one believes by choice and without proof, that seems like belief on a whim — and then how is one ever supposed to persuade anyone else of this belief? If Goatee man maintains that there is a way to persuade others of one's own religious beliefs, then he needs to explain why he is not willing to listen to Ponytail man. Perhaps he would say that he finds Ponytail man an inarticulate and ineffective champion of his own cause. Fine, then, but then the readers of this story deserve to hear from a better representative, and perhaps Goatee man ought to seek one out. It really isn't fair or consistent for Goatee man to say that people can (in principle) be persuaded to adopt someone else's religious belief, but that Goatee man personally will never and indeed no one else should ever adopt Ponytail man's religious beliefs simply because they are religious. It is self-contradictory for Goatee man to take those positions.

An early concern I must raise is that I see no reason to think that there are only two options here. Whether our truth-claims ought to be called "science" and "religion" is debatable, but we must also debate why we would limit ourselves to only two categories. Having set up this false dichotomy, Goatee man claims to be more expert than Ponytail man at embracing and analyzing both types of truth-claim. He seems interested in championing science as preferable to religion, but other times he claims he does religion better than his interlocutor insofar as he (Goatee man) is at least conscious of when he is doing religion and not science.

Also, Goatee man bases his inquiry more on his consciousness of his own positions and on his own self-assessed coherence, and not at all on empathy or respect for others (neither on his own claim to have it, nor on anyone else's testimony that he has it), which makes his argument rather narcissistic. He's talking about being smart without even trying to be attentive to how his words affect others. And, insofar as there's no peer review process (he hasn't asked anyone for critical feedback), his philosophy touting the importance of science isn't ultimately very scientific, either.

Goatee man points out that we do not use brain scans to determine everyone's subjective gender identity and that even Ponytail man would never use a discordant brain scan to disallow anyone from enjoying the gender identity of their choice. The counterargument should have been that science can show trends and probabilities, and not necessarily unwavering correlations. So if, for example, studies show that Bolivians and Malaysians are on average shorter than Dutch and Canadians, in the real world this does not mean that we must either be willing to inform all tall people that they are Dutch or Canadian and all short people that they are Bolivian or Malaysian and that our only alternative to this blanket assumption would be to discard all height measurements so that we don't know anything about average heights by group. But this world of false alternatives is Goatee man's position. He sees no way to reflect the incontrovertible reality that some Bolivians and Malaysians are tall and some Dutch and Canadians are short. Following his logic, it would be unscientific to say so, because the results of a scientific study must work for everyone and be able to prove or disprove what any given individual is.

Also: Goatee man doesn't explain why he sometimes chooses science and other times religion. Does he flip a coin or follow a whim? Or is there a meta-rule by which he decides what beliefs require scientific reasoning? If he lacks scientific evidence, does he form a religious belief, and if he gains scientific evidence is he obligated to abandon that belief?

Goatee man compares gender identity to doctrines of "resurrection or reincarnation" or to being a "prophet." This is not a good comparison. Gender identity — considered as a personal belief, state of mind, language, or behavior that can be successfully lived out in the real world especially if others support it — is very much unlike a factual claim about something supernatural that cannot exist and cannot even be coherently described. As a secular person, Ponytail man should have responded that bodies can't be raised from the dead, souls can't be put in new bodies, and people can't prophesy the future, but that individuals really can live in more than one gender role over the course of their lives. That's one reason to think it isn't "religious" to acknowledge others' self-asserted gender identity.

Goatee man keeps trying on this point. He says: "The word 'prophet' is a real word with a real meaning — just like the words 'man' and 'woman' are real words with real meanings." But the question is not whether words have definitions. All words — at least the ones used in debates, the ones we encounter in life, the ones we encounter in this book — are real. All words have meanings. It's not useful to compare randomly selected Word A with Word B just because they both have entries in the dictionary. A better question is what kind of words they are and how they are used. And what I see is that the word "prophet" is unlike the words "man" and "woman" in various ways. If their similarities amount to "hey, these are both words!" and no inventory is taken of their dissimilarities, I see no reason to proceed further with this line of inquiry.

When Goatee man says, "Gender identity is either a religious belief or it is a delusion," is he inadvertently drawing a parallel between religious beliefs and delusions? As previously mentioned, "religious belief" isn't well defined in this book. It is taken to mean, vaguely, things we choose to believe for unscientific reasons. Delusions, then, seem to fit the bill. That makes this sentence potentially more of a comparison than a contrast.

Goatee man acknowledges the existence of intersex people, but dismisses them as having "a really crappy birth defect." This, clearly, does not display willingness to learn something about gender from those people.

Ponytail man, in perhaps his most articulate moment, says that gender is a "social construct." This is the right direction in which to take his argument so that he can begin to answer Goatee man's concerns. Unfortunately, he, as an inarticulate character, is unable to take it any further.

Even if we were to grant Goatee man's claims that someone's gender identity is an unprovable assertion (thus a "religious belief") while their physical sex is easily provable (thus a "scientific belief"), that doesn't in itself provide any justification for the social agenda of sorting people in public bathrooms by their physical sex. Why not let them self-sort by their gender identity? Alternatively, why do we bother sorting at all? The presumed importance of the sorting, since it is not argued for at all, is certainly unproven within this text — and, therefore, the presumed importance of the sorting seems to be a religious belief, according to Goatee man's own definitions. This is not minor. This is foundational to the entire purpose of the book. If there is a debate about how people decide who is allowed to use men's and women's bathrooms, and if we are asked to seriously entertain the possibility that people's ideas about their own gender are full of unproven or unprovable nonsense (simply because we haven't been shown a decent explanation of gender identity within this book), it seems we must also consider that our assumed need to strictly gender the bathrooms and to control other people's access to them is itself unproven or unprovable nonsense (as we haven't been shown a decent argument for why it's important to control bathroom access, either). If regulating bathroom access is a "religious belief," can people who don't want to regulate or be regulated go ahead and ignore those who persist in such religion? Can we ask them to keep their religion to themselves?

Goatee man says: "Strip off everyone's clothes in this room, and I'll wager I can identify each and every person's gender." There are two problems here. First, this imagery is violent and it may be an ad baculum fallacy (appeal to force) or perhaps an ad verecundiam (appeal to authority). I have no doubt that, if Goatee man saw me naked, he would quickly issue an opinion (correct or not) about my sex/gender. That he is capable of forming instant judgments in service of whatever argument he wants to make is not a question in my mind. I would prefer, rather, to respond but there is no situation in which it is OK for you to strip me naked and pass judgments on my body; in delivering that response, however, I expect that he would, if I am to be realistic about the situation, somehow interpret my refusal to submit to his judgment as my conceding his point. If it works that way, he is committing some fallacy based on his own presumed authority to make violent threats to win arguments. Second, since Goatee man has acknowledged that intersex people exist, from a scientific perspective he does need to consider the implications of his inability to identify literally "each and every person's gender." If there is even one person whose physical sex is confusing or unapparent to him, he has encountered a problem for his argument. Plus, sometimes the "really crappy birth defect" is not in the person at whom one gazes but resides rather in one's own eyesight. I believe there is a Bible verse about that.

This, too, is a significant point. It's not just that one sentence is phrased in a crass manner. This is a proposal that if we could examine others' naked bodies then we could make an authoritative answer about how we think they should behave, and this wrong-headed idea opens the heart of how and why a social construct does what it does. Reality: It is never appropriate to order strangers stripped naked so that you can determine what gender you think they are or tell them what they should do about their gender. Because of this social agreement, we do not use information about strangers' apparent physical sex to tell them what bathroom they should enter. Instead, we let each person decide for themselves. The person who enters the bathroom is the person who decides, in that moment, where they best fit — men's or women's room. We allow the social construct of gender to perform its function. The social construct operates more gently than a forced visual or tactile inspection of someone's anatomy. The social construct works reliably well; people sort themselves into genders that are, on the whole, reasonable for them, and there are not problems in public bathrooms caused by the gender self-selection. So it is a non-starter for this book to attempt to shut down the idea of gender identity as a social construct and to attempt to dismiss it as non-scientific or anti-scientific. In fact, we can demonstrate how the social construct works. We can also, via thought experiment, see that a more "scientific" approach (if it involves treating people as specimens to be examined and classified) would likely produce social conflict and negative feelings and furthermore that it is not obvious what problem it would be intended to solve or what purpose it would serve.

We might ask if it is a "religious belief" to acknowledge and respect anything anyone says about their identity. Someone might claim to be Christian, left-handed, straight, introverted, to have grown up in a certain cultural background, to prefer apples over pears, and so forth. Normally we wouldn't call such claims "religious"; after all, no appeal to God is made. And while these identities may involve social constructs, the issue I care more about at this moment revolves around simply believing what people say about themselves and trusting that you will all be happier if you respect each other. This objection — that the topic of "religious beliefs" or "social constructs" isn't specific to gender, but is really much broader, and that the author's argument (via the character of Goatee man) seems to break down when it is broadened — is never considered in the book.

Another way of phrasing this: Is the belief that "gender identity is a religious belief" itself a religious belief? This is a meta-question, but it's not purely academic. It is important and needs to be central to considering this book's arguments. Goatee man is using the label "religious" to mean scientifically unproven and/or adhered to for no particular reason; he is using it, it seems, to partially devalue the beliefs he labels "religious," maintaining that religious claims carry little or no weight with someone who simply chooses not to believe in them. So we need to pay attention to whether there is a regress of things we don't have to believe. Goatee man says "gender identity is a religious belief." But why should I believe that? Is he making a scientific claim with those words, or a claim that all rational people are bound to accept? And if his claim about gender identity (that no one else should be socially obligated to acknowledge or respect one's asserted gender identity) is true, then why doesn't it apply to other asserted identities such as the ones I mentioned earlier? Goatee man is using the accusation of "religion" to justify not listening to certain bracketed beliefs of Ponytail man. Goatee man needs to consider the possibility that someone will put brackets around some of his sentences (specifically, the things Goatee man says about Ponytail man), label Goatee man's pronouncements "religious," and then not listen to him. This is a real problem for a book that amounts to a sort of manifesto predicated on waving one's hand and thereby dismissing other people's frameworks and worldviews as nonsense. Someone is going to try waving their hand to dismiss the entire manifesto as nonsense. The manifesto has to be ready for that. It has to have a response. It doesn't. It is a "religious" manifesto, to use its own language against it. And it is weakly religious, to use its own assessment standard against it, as long as it remains unconscious of its own religious nature. That is to say, it would be more robust if it were at least aware that it doesn't have rational support for its position.

If you go back far enough to investigate the foundation of any belief, you find that, at some point, you don't really have and can't get justification. That's because, if you go back far enough, you must question your standards for justification. There's no way to justify the method by which you justify other things. Everyone has to start somewhere. We pick our starting line and move on from there. Regarding sex and gender, one has to observe that some people actually do modify their bodies and/or choose gender roles other than that which their parents or the rest of society has assigned to them. Then a question presents itself: Should these people's choices and self-identity be respected and affirmed or disrespected and denied? Should we allow people to tell us what gender they are, or should we tell them what gender we want them to be? There may not be a way to fully and solidly justify one's approach here, but there are some good reasons to prefer the first approach; they are the same general reasons why acknowledgment and respect are usually better than their alternatives. More specifically in this case, the first approach allows everyone to use a public bathroom without argument or fuss because each person worries about himself/herself/themselves, pees, and ignores the rest of the world, while the second approach involves multiple people trying to manage one person's behavior in contradictory ways with complicated arguments within a very short timeline because the people who are arguing (especially the one who's being argued at) have to pee, and the argument can easily be construed as harassment of, incite assault against, and cause social damage for the gender-variant person who is the most vulnerable person and the only intended target in this situation. That may not be a full justification for choosing the first approach, but it's certainly a decent reason. I'm saying it's unfair to accuse the first approach of being unconsciously "religious" (insofar as it lacks justification) and to praise the second approach as being more "scientific." Both may lack some kind of ultimate justification. Supporters of each may have varying degrees of awareness of that. The author's defense of the second approach, unfortunately, seems unconscious of the second approach's own frailty, limits, and risks. He is not fully owning the underlying agendas and consequences of deliberately disrespecting other people's gender identity. Those agendas and consequences, in my view, have little to do with science.

Goatee man complains that "you decided that with gender — and only with gender — magical words can overrule physical reality itself. What gives you the right to make that declaration? Who do you think you are? God?" There are a couple problems here. First, Ponytail man didn't initially say that gender is the only example of this kind of social construct. That's a straw man trap that Goatee man set for him, a coercive Socratic interrogation to which he succumbed far too quickly and easily. The claim that Goatee man makes here — that allies of transgender people treat gender identity as a social construct like no other social construct — may not be true. Considering gender identity as a unique type of social construct is not, in fact, essential to the concept or behavior of respecting transgender people. Ponytail man outwardly agreed with Goatee man's accusation, basically saying sure, OK, gender is unique among all social constructs, but Ponytail man is a poor advocate for his position. Second, everyone uses labels and constructs, and that doesn't mean we think we are God. Making clear, strong assertions should not result in a charge of hubris. (After all, from a scientific perspective, it's preferable for a hypothesis to be worded clearly so that it can be confirmed or disproven. It actually can be less arrogant to make a firm declaration because in doing so you are leaving yourself vulnerable to being disproven, rather than equivocating and hedging your bets.) Ponytail man makes hardly any coherent declarations and is drooling on himself, and Goatee man still accuses him of hubris. This is unfair as an interpersonal matter between the two fictional characters, and more significantly from the philosophical perspective it does not amount to a persuasive argument in favor of Goatee man's position or, indeed, about anything.

It is hopefully apparent by now, but remains important to explicitly point out, that no transgender characters were allowed to speak for themselves in this book. That would violate Goatee man's ethic of goatee-splaining. Of course, if there had been a transgender character representation in the story, it would simply be the author Stephen Measure's idea of a transgender person, so that would hardly amount to real transgender people speaking for themselves. It would, however, be a step toward the acknowledgment that transgender people's voices ought to be considered in philosophical or political arguments about them. If one is uncomfortable writing a transgender character, one probably shouldn't be writing a story that argues how such people should be interpreted and treated in real life, either.

Nor does it take atheists seriously. Setting the Goatee man/Ponytail man debate in a Pastafarian (atheist) gathering hall, and having the fictional atheist leadership in the room behave ridiculously and side with the obviously useless Ponytail man, is just a dig against atheism within the context of the story. This story proves nothing about real atheists' beliefs or reasoning capabilities.

To wrap up: This isn't a serious book. In the positive sense of "unserious," the tone is playful. In the negative sense of "unserious," it's impossible for me to entertain the author's arguments. If this were an essay, it would fail. Dressing it up as a story doesn't save it.

By now, I have surely expended more than three dollars' worth of effort in analyzing these problems, in addition to having spent my literal three dollars. (Someone now is likely imagining that he wants to strip my wallet out of my pants and have a look before he believes me about what I've spent.) I don't know if I've proven, or at least been persuasive about, my points. After all, I'm surprised I had to make these points in the first place; they seem blazingly obvious to me. But, at the very least, I think I've demonstrated that I can respond to an argument without "dehumanizing" the author, so perhaps I shall not wind up on the third topic section of his website. I did indeed point out that one sentence was phrased in a way that might be interpreted as a bit violent, but this was not an attempt to place a blanket label of bad-personness on the author, but simply a call-out of one concrete instance of writing/argumentation. If he wishes to maintain (as he does on his website) that it is fair game for him to criticize others' behaviors of which he disapproves, then he should grant that it is fair game for me to criticize his behavior in writing this book. If he does not even see himself as dehumanizing other people when he tells them what he thinks they really are, then he should have no reason to think that I am dehumanizing him when I tell him what I hear when he tells me what he thinks I really am. I am not even telling him what I think he is. I am telling him how I hear and interpret his words about me. That is not dehumanization of him. That is telling him how to avoid injuring or offending others.

It might, you know, be considered a low blow — but certainly not a dehumanizing blow — to mention that I spotted four instances of the noun "identity" as a typo for the intended verb "identify." It is not enough to rely on automatic spellcheck; writers should hire a transgender human whose eyes can see what their own eyes might not. I tend to identify (not identity) typos when I read. If the writer is going to strip me down and say, hey, I see a Transsexual where I expected to see a Female and it makes me unhappy, then I reserve the right to reply that, yes, I, too, see a 't' where I expected an 'f' and it is similarly disconcerting. If I am supposed to pretend not to notice typos in the very words I paid three dollars to read, then I expect that other people will keep their judgmental eyes out of my pants into which, by the way, they haven't paid me bubkis to look. Anyway, in case I haven't made it clear, it wasn't the recurring typo that irked me about the book. It was everything else.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Sen. Collins' speech in favor of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh

Immediately after Sen. Susan Collins delivered a speech explaining why she would vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Mark Joseph Stern wrote for Slate:

"The Republican senator declared herself undecided until the last possible minute, but it now appears that this very public ambivalence was a charade. Collins’ address started as a bad-faith attack on Democrats, then transformed into an astoundingly na√Įve defense of Kavanaugh’s jurisprudence. It concluded with a condescending sop to Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, suggesting that she’d misidentified her alleged assailant. The speech might as well have been written by Mitch McConnell and Ed Whelan. It was an embarrassment and a travesty."

Stern made the following key points in his article.

He explained that "the Judicial Crisis Network, a dark-money group funded largely by a single anonymous donor" which previously spent $7 million to oppose Obama's Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland (who was never confirmed) and $10 million to support Trump's pick Neil Gorsuch (who was confirmed), just spent $12 million to support Kavanaugh. The liberal organization Demand Justice, by contrast, spent only $5 million to oppose Kavanaugh. Thus, he says, Sen. Collins was "hypocritical" to complain about the political opposition to Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh ruled that religious employers could limit their employees' access to contraception (Priests for Life v. HHS). Collins presented this ruling as a political compromise, which Stern believes to be an inaccurate description, as it delivered to religious conservatives "everything they wanted." Kavanaugh also sided with the Trump administration said that a judge's permission wasn't enough to allow an undocumented minor in federal custody to have an abortion (Garza v. Hargan), indicating that he may not follow precedent on abortion rights.

Some Republican-appointed Supreme Court Justices, like David Souter, have supported Roe v. Wade. But that, Stern explains, is exactly "why the Republican legal establishment’s refrain is 'No More Souters.' It’s why the Federalist Society created a network of conservative lawyers unified by their opposition to Roe. It’s why Donald Trump, who campaigned on overturning Roe, outsourced judicial nominations to the Federalist Society. And it’s why Kavanaugh, a Federalist Society loyalist, was selected for this seat." Sen. Collins' expressed hope that Kavanaugh will be one of the Republican appointees who supports Roe is thus disingenuous.

WATCH: Kavanaugh's statement in late September 2018 responding to accusations of sexual assault, described by some as a "tantrum."

WATCH: Collins' speech on Oct. 5, 2018 saying that she will vote to confirm him.

Monday, September 17, 2018

U.S. on trial for responsibility for climate change: 'Juliana v. United States'

On Oct. 29, "a judge in Oregon will begin hearing a case brought against the United States government on behalf of 21 young people, supported by the non-profit organization Our Children’s Trust, who allege that the authorities’ active contributions to the climate crisis violate their constitutional rights," as Peter Singer wrote for Project Syndicate in 2018.

Singer said:

"The first climate litigation to win a positive decision was Urgenda Foundation v. The State of Netherlands, in which a Dutch court ruled, in 2015, that the government must ensure that the country’s emissions are cut by one quarter within five years. In response, the Dutch government did step up its actions to reduce emissions, but it also appealed the judgment. In October, The Hague Court of Appeals will deliver its verdict on that appeal.

Important as Urgenda has been, Juliana v. United States is by far the most significant climate case to date.

* * *

If we take the view that every person on this planet is entitled to an equal share of the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb our greenhouse-gas emissions, then the US is emitting 3.5 times its fair share. ... Moreover, the principle of equal per capita emissions is generous to the old industrialized countries, because it ignores their historical responsibility for the past emissions that have led to the situation we face today."

On Monday, Oct. 29, groups will rally in support of the youth plaintiffs at federal courthouses around the United States. (Example: Moakley courthouse in Boston) They are using the hashtags

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Evangelicals disappointed in Trump's character

It can be tricky to pin down what evangelicals think of Trump, in part because it's an impermanent demographic based on self-identification.

First, it's important to note the decline in Christian influence in the United States. Many commentators have suggested that Christians are making a kind of "deal" with the man who happens to have gained power, someone who — just perhaps — they otherwise would not have admired.

Nina Burleigh wrote for Newsweek on April 16, 2018 that white evangelicals have experienced a sharp demographic decline over the last decade. Burleigh attributes this to their children "leaving the faith in droves over its anti-LGBT and anti-science positions"; today, 92 percent of white evangelicals are over age 30. "During the 2016 primary season, white evangelicals were largely divided in their opinion of Trump...But once Republicans nominated him, his favorability among white evangelicals jumped to 61 percent in September 2016...Now, according to a poll conducted in late March [2018], after the Stormy Daniels story was widely discussed, support has risen to a record 75 percent." This suggests that this demographic is substantially unconcerned "by his lawyer’s hush money to Stormy Daniels," "revelations that the married President had a year-long affair with an adult film actress after First Lady Melania gave birth to their son Barron," and "shady business deals".

White evangelicals "went from being the least likely to the most likely to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality had nothing to do with public service," an article in the New York Times said in June 2018, referencing a September 2017 article in the paper.

Ross Douthat wrote for the New York Times in September 2018 that a new survey by the Cato Institute’s Emily Ekins for the Voter Study Group found that whether a Trump voter attends church predicted their views on race. Among Trump voters who never go to church, only half had positive feelings about Black people, and a quarter said their own whiteness was "very important" to their identity. Among Trump voters who frequently go to church, 71 percent had positive feelings about Black people, and only 9 percent said their own whiteness was "very important" to their identity. While the religious and secular groups in the survey had similar incomes, the secular people were "less likely to have college degrees, less likely to be married and more likely to be divorced; they’re also less civically engaged, less satisfied with their neighborhoods and communities, and less trusting and optimistic in general." (Emily Ekins wrote a separate article about it, concluding that "encouraging conservatives to disengage from religion...may in fact make it even harder for left and right to meet in a more compassionate middle.") But why did the churchgoing people vote for Trump, if they disagree with him about race? It seems they made "a pragmatic bet that his policies on abortion and religious liberty were worth living with his Caligulan personal life and racial demagoguery." Early Christianity made such a bet with the Roman emperor Constantine. However, with Trump, it's "the reverse sort of situation: A Christian community trying to make the best of its decline, and allying with a leader whose core appeal depends upon and possibly furthers the de-Christianization of’s hard to see how it can reverse de-Christianization, and easy to see how it might accelerate it."

Others have a different interpretation. Neil J. Young, author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics, notes the study's conclusion that "religious participation may serve a moderating function in our politics" [emphasis mine] and he clarifies that he believes that "white evangelicals are no moderating force. They are the core of our extremist president’s support." [emphasis mine]

Whether or not conservatism today is stripping Christianity of its religious content, it is giving it power, and this does reverse the decline of the influence of Christian institutions. Katherine Stewart, author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children wrote in a May 2018 op-ed for the New York Times:

"There is a story going around, on both the left and the right, that America’s 'true believers' are a declining force and are now conducting desperate, defensive maneuvers in a secularizing society. But that is not how the leaders of the Christian Nationalist movement see it — because it is not true. They played a key role in putting President Trump in power. They are protecting him now, as they giddily collect their winnings in legislatures and in the courts. Why should they doubt that they can pull off the same trick again?

What Christian nationalists know — and many of us have yet to learn — is that you don’t need a majority to hijack a modern democracy. You just need a sizable minority, marinating in its grievances, willing to act as a bloc, and impervious to correction by fact or argument. Make this group feel good about itself by making other people feel bad about themselves, and dominion may well be in reach."

Franklin Graham, son of the late Billy Graham, planned ten "campaign-style rallies" throughout California in late May and early June 2018 in advance of that state's primary election. The goal is to turn out the evangelical vote. Other kinds of Christians are not receiving the same outreach to attend these rallies, "a tactic that plays directly into the growing separatist sentiment among many white evangelicals," according to Neil J. Young, author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. Of this attempt to stoke "white evangelical resentment and outrage," Young wrote: "Such a dark and alarmist vision might seem to contradict the hopeful joy evangelicals claim their faith provides, but it aligns perfectly with the cynical and conspiratorial worldview Trump has brought to the center of American politics. As such, white evangelicals’ support for Trump doesn’t expose their hypocrisy, as plenty have contended, so much as it plainly reveals their heart." On 13 June, even Graham told the Christian Broadcasting Network that Trump's policy of separating would-be immigrant families at the border is "disgraceful, it’s terrible to see families ripped apart and I don’t support that one bit." He stopped short, however, of holding Trump accountable: "I blame the politicians for the last 20, 30 years that have allowed this to escalate to where it is today."

Whether Christian power is seen to be declining or rising, many see the new administration as an opportunity to advance a theocratic-leaning political agenda. The theologian Roger E. Olson wrote for Patheos in August 2018 in "Is Trump “Our Cyrus?"

Here I’m not talking about those evangelical Christians who, among others, voted for Trump in order to vote against Hilary Clinton as the “lesser of two evils.” I’m talking about the many evangelical Christians who are now lionize Trump as a kind of new national messiah—not on a par with Jesus Christ but...on a par with whom?

A growing common answer is "He’s our Cyrus.'

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During his approximately thirty year reign he [Cyrus] released the Hebrew people in exile to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple that was destroyed earlier by the Babylonians....the Hebrew people did not consider Cyrus one of them, of course, but a powerful ally—and one raised up by God to deliver them from exile and bondage."

Olson issues a warning: "I strongly suspect that he [Trump] is manipulating his conservative Christian 'base' and would turn on them in a moment if it suited his agenda to be powerful."

Is it hypocritical? Well, yes. Kathleen Parker on Aug. 31, 2018 in the Washington Post decried "the utter hypocrisy of allowing such a foul-mouthed, race-baiting misogynist to occupy the Oval Office after many of these same paragons of virtue impeached Bill Clinton for lying about his irresponsible affair with an intern." But it can be politically expedient to ignore the personal failings of one's own candidate. James Traub wrote in the Atlantic on July 18, 2018:

Elected Democrats lined up to denounce President Bill Clinton’s private behavior during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, though none deemed it worthy of impeachment. Donald Trump’s vastly more outrageous behavior has provoked far less opprobrium from his own party. Republicans aren’t less decent than Democrats; rather, they have come to see political struggle in such apocalyptic terms that no merely personal form of shameful behavior can compete with the political stakes. Thus Christian conservatives hold their tongue rather than jeopardize their chances of getting a Supreme Court justice who will overturn Roe v. Wade. The party of personal morality thus becomes the party of indifference to personal morality.

On another front, where Christians are trying to consolidate political power, it isn't exclusively white Christians who are doing so.

Katherine Stewart profiled Jim Domen for the New York Times on June 20, 2018. Domen (who considers himself a "former homosexual") founded Church United and has led it since 2014. It is "a multiethnic group of pastors from a variety of traditions — including Pentecostal and Catholic clergy members" with a mission of “helping pastors transform California at the government and church level.” Domen supports Trump, saying that he has “done more for the Church than many Christian presidents have.” Church United's work to "politicize pastors," as Stewart put it, "started with six affiliated pastors in 2014. The group now counts approximately 500 member pastors."

Some people feel torn.

An example of a middle-of-the-road position is given by Rev. Samuel Rodríguez, who serves at a church in Sacramento, Calif. and who has had private conversations with Trump in the White House. He publicly condemned Trump for his misogynistic, crude comments on the Access Hollywood tape and is also fighting Trump's immigration agenda, but he is willing to work with Trump overall. In May 2018, Rodríguez told BBC World:

"Trump ha hecho más por el movimiento evangélico que cualquier otro presidente desde la época de Ronald Reagan. Se puede medir. Hay 20 puntos que uno puede decir claramente: aquí firmó una orden ejecutiva, aquí firmó una ley, aquí avanzó..."

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"El movimiento latino evangélico no está casado con Donald Trump. Tampoco estaba casado con Obama. Estamos casados con una agenda que va mucho más allá de la personalidad."

Independently of whatever "deal" may be struck here, what do evangelicals feel about Trump's character?Many are disappointed. Molly Wicker wrote for the New York Times on May 19, 2017:

"Evangelical voters have long demanded that politicians exemplify Christian character and morality in the public sector. In Donald Trump, however, evangelicals were confronted with a candidate who pledged allegiance to conservative ideals, but embodied none of them.
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Claire Waugh, a senior from Woodbridge, Va., told me that she refused in November to have a Trump vote on her conscience, and that she hates to see the country being "led by a man who spews vitriol against anyone who is unlike him, a man who tries to invoke God’s name when he is acting utterly ungodly.""

Some Christians think that theology, not secular politics, is the way forward.

David Kuo, who worked for the George W. Bush administration, wrote in his 2006 memoir Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction when he was facing a terminal illness (pp. 262-263):

"We Christians need a short fast from politics.

We need to eschew politics to focus more on practicing compassion. We need to spend more time studying Jesus and less time trying to get people elected. Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year in support of conservative Christian advocacy groups such as the Family Research Council, Eagle Forum, and the panoply of similar groups, let's give that money to charities and groups that are arguably closer to Jesus' heart. And we Christians should spend less time arguing with those on the other side and more time communing with them."

More recently, Daniel Burke wrote for CNN on 13 June 2018 about the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Dallas that "a small but significant slice" of the 10,000 participants objected to the planned address by Vice President Mike Pence. Younger people seemed more concerned with evangelizing the message of Jesus (what they call "The Great Commission") than with aligning themselves with the Republican Party. Garrett Kell, a pastor, said alignment with the Republican Party was also strategically fraught as it could affect the Southern Baptists' interracial and international relations. (The Southern Baptists formed as a pro-slavery splinter group in 1845, and Pew's 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study found that the Southern Baptists remain 85 percent white.) Pence did address the Convention that day, and Burke followed up, saying that "much of Pence's speech was dedicated to praising the accomplishments of his boss, President Donald Trump." He added: "The denomination's executive committee will consider a motion to cease inviting elected officials to speak at national conventions."

Jonathan Merritt, writing for The Atlantic on 16 June, said that the crowd at the annual meeting was significantly younger than he remembered from his childhood. He quoted Baylor University history professor Barry Hankins as saying that this demographic change "has thrust the group into the middle of an identity crisis". They elected 45-year-old J.D. Greear as the president of the Southern Baptists who has promised to make an effort to proportionately represent women and people of color in leadership roles. The denomination addresses public policy through its Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which opposes President Trump, and Greear said that inviting Pence to speak "sent a terribly mixed signal" about whether the Southern Baptists stood for religion or politics. At least some Southern Baptists, Merritt said, "appear to recognize that tethering themselves to Donald Trump...places the moral credibility of the Southern Baptist Convention at risk." Furthermore, although "Southern Baptists have criticized more liberal denominations for their declines," they, too, are experiencing the same decline; they have lost 1 million members in the past 15 years. Tying themselves to conservative politics is therefore, many conclude, not the answer to reversing this trend.