Monday, June 30, 2014

Hobby Lobby Horse Hockey

Today’s SCOTUS Hobby Lobby decision was an obvious assault on logic and common sense: Not only are corporations immortal persons, they can have religious convictions and therefore deny their employees birth control on moral grounds. As humorist Andy Borowitz summed up in his parody news story style, "By a 5–4 vote on Monday, the United States Supreme Court settled a dispute that Justice Samuel Alito said was 'at its core about the rights of women versus the rights of people.'" But the problem goes beyond the legal fiction of corporate personhood. It shows how the rhetoric of freedom is routinely turned on its ear by conservatives who have chronic difficulty recognizing others' rights and it shows why they really hate government.

Various conservatives have called today's decision a victory for religious liberty. It is an Orwellian choice of words because it is actually a victory for religious coercion. Russell Moore, President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, tweeted, “#HobbyLobby wins. This is a great day for religious liberty. Government is not lord of the conscience.”

No, apparently your employer is.

This is familiar conservative illogic. It is even found in the mouths of self-identified “libertarians.” Indeed, as conservatives have co-opted libertarian rhetoric, libertarians have become more conservative. At this point, libertarian ideology has largely become a hodgepodge of elaborate rationalizations to excuse coercion. Corporate personhood is only one among many institutionalized absurdities that they enlist - states rights is yet another. Both are employed to deny the rights of breathing human beings. The Libertarian Party's morphed position on abortion illustrates this. As I wrote in my book:

Ayn Rand was staunchly pro-choice. “Abortion is a moral right – which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved.” She reasoned, “An embryo has no rights. Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being.”(1)(emphasis original) Her words could not possibly speak clearer. This issue was once so central to libertarian thought that, in the early 1980s, they printed tee-shirts with the image of a pistol, a pot leaf, and a woman symbol with the slogan “Libertarians are pro-choice on everything.” Well, they are no longer pro-choice on abortion. Today, the Libertarian Party regularly fields anti-abortion candidates for president. Indeed, they began back in 1988 with Ron Paul. Naturally, they reconcile this with their rhetoric of liberty by saying that your freedom should be left to the states. As one anti-Ron Paul graphic I saw put it: “Government so small it fits in your uterus.”

The court's Hobby Lobby decision is actually the predictable result of such thought. Consider this incident I recounted in the book:

When promoting his latest book, Every Day is an Atheist Holiday! [Penn] Jillette appeared on Glenn Beck’s show, “The Blaze.” Jillette argued (2) that a religious pharmacist “absolutely” had the right to deny a woman the abortion pill because the pharmacist’s individual conscience is sacred. But what about the woman’s? Beck did not ask that question, but they both probably would have said that she can go to another pharmacy. But what if there are not any more in the area? Then it sucks to be her. But individual conscience is actually not all that sacred to Penn Jillette. He added that the pharmacist’s employer was free to fire him and that would be fine just so long as the government did not get involved. The employer has an individual conscience too and apparently that trumps the pharmacist’s. Money trumps many things. It all seems pretty reasonable until you stop and think about it. Then you realize that there is a hierarchy with women at the bottom and bosses at the top. To paraphrase George Orwell, some consciences are more equal than others.

I was happy to see that I had anticipated Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent in the case. She wondered if the exemption would "extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah's Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations." In my rejoinder to Penn Jillette's argument, I had added:

You do not have to be a genius to realize that allowing pharmacists to deny birth control is only going to prompt theocratic prudes to become pharmacists. Why not allow Christian Science pharmacists to deny all prescriptions the same way they try to deny their children medical attention? Granted, they would be unlikely to find jobs, so you could say that the market would prevent that. But the principle still remains the same: The law should not allow others’ religious convictions to restrict your bodily autonomy. It is an abuse of your position to use your job to force your personal mores or desires on others. Likewise, bosses cannot demand sex from employees to grant raises or promotions. That is illegal – and should be. The predatory employer’s rationale is "If you do not like it, you can work someplace else."

In short, libertarianism is not pro-freedom but anti-government. To them, there is no coercion until government gets involved. Obviously, this philosophy does not recognize when government is trying to protect our freedoms. But one of the most fundamental functions of government is protecting us from each other. That is why we have laws against murder, robbery rape, etc. And this includes civil law as well as criminal law: If someone breaks a contract with you, you take them to court instead of taking the law into your own hands. This is some pretty fundamental stuff:

Take gay marriage, for example. On Glenn Beck’s show, Penn Jillette asked when government got involved in love and marriage as if this were some unprecedented new intrusion. Um, try the Code of Hammurabi. Marriage was a monetary transaction for millenniums before love got involved. And property remains a large part of marriage today, thus disputes over divorce, custody, or inheritance. As long as people own homes, have children, and have disputes, government has a role to referee. The notion that government should not get involved is absurd. Without a referee, "Might makes right" would decide every dispute. Libertarians ignore non-governmental bullying and insist government must never intervene to stop it. During the show, Jillette emphasized, "We do not want to be a country of bullies," But his philosophy is a bonanza for bullies and he should be smart enough to see that.

So, yes, corporate personhood is a big problem at the heart of this case, but it is not the only one. Misogyny is obviously another problem. But lopped on top of those is the right's opposition to the proper role of government. And that opposition has historically been grounded in their love of bullying and hostility toward liberty and equality. After all, it was not until after we began recognizing and upholding the civil rights of African Americans in the 1950s, that conservatives began screeching about "federal tyranny." But every other form of tyranny seems to be pretty okay to them.


(1) Anne C. Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made (New York: Doubleday, 2009), 320-321.
(2) The abortion pill part starts at 28:47. Throughout the broadcast, Penn Jillette gave Glenn Beck passes on things he obviously should not have. For example, Jillette “absolutely” agreed with Beck that our country was founded on “Christian principles.”

Friday, June 27, 2014

Soul of a Republic

Here is founding father and author of the first dictionary of the American language Noah Webster on the topic of property in a republic. Sensitive conservatives may want to brace themselves first:
An equality of property, with a necessity of alienation, constantly operating to destroy combinations of powerful families, is the very soul of a republic – While this continues, the people will inevitably possess both power and freedom; when this is lost, power departs, liberty expires, and a commonwealth will inevitably assume some other form. The liberty of the press, trial by jury, the Habeas Corpus writ, even the Magna Charta itself, although justly deemed the palladia of freedom, are all inferior considerations, when compared with a general distribution of real property among every class of people. (emphasis original)*
If that does not make conservatives howl enough, he was also the father of secular education in America.


The Founders’ Constitution, ed. Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 1:596.

Nazi Analogies Ad Nauseam

Glenn Beck buried the needle on the irony meter again.

This time it was by comparing a Tea Party primary loss to the infamous anti-Semitic hoax  The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The irony being that Glenn Beck's paranoid exposé on George Soros sounds just like Protocols reads. Both posited a sinister conspiracy by "international financiers" to secretly control world events. Jon Stewart did a hilarious and brilliant critique of Glenn Beck's two episode event.

Admittedly, this is not novelty anymore. Almost every one of Glenn Beck's broadcasts is something like the Protocols warmed-over. He is always careful to say "liberals" instead of "Jews" but the rhetoric is otherwise identical. Indeed, do we really need to hear anything more about Glenn Beck? We all know what he is going to say and, as you can hear in the first link, he is audibly crumbling. His whole voice-cracking rant was a hopeless morass of paranoid rambling:
It's the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. That's really what we're turning into. What a surprise, Protocols of the Elders of Zion, oh, that's right, that was a Marxist-Communist thing. I forgot all about that.  How interesting it is that history always repeats itself. 
But Glenn Beck is no lone loon. Jonah Goldberg's book, Liberal Fascism, is an unoriginal compendium of longstanding conservative canards – from trying to equate birth control with eugenics to claiming that Adolf Hitler confiscated guns. Such rhetoric is nothing new, but it is everywhere today. Like traffic accidents and school shootings, Nazi analogies are so common that we have almost become inured to them. They are just woven into the ordinary fabric of things in American political life now.

So how did we get here? Why does this keep happening? What explains their favorite metaphor?

I wrote a chapter on this in my book. I quoted it a bit in the original version of this post. Unfortunately, the result was a somewhat choppy and unsatisfying collection of block quotes that only skimmed the surface of this issue. Recently, Donald Trump's draconian proposals have invited Nazi comparisons, which I think should be made cautiously - but still should be made when accurate. [Edit: And many are accurate now.] So, I finally decided to drop the whole chapter into this post behind the cut.

Let me provide some quick context beforehand.

One of my book's themes is that conservatives feel besieged in free society. Since they are ideologically allergic to the three interdependent ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy, their identity feels forever threatened. So they project and question others' patriotism. Yes, authoritarians the world-over obsess over loyalty and belonging, but this glaring contradiction makes American conservatives particularly prickly. It explains why their defensive narratives invariably go awry - and why so angrily.

The right's longstanding hostility to democracy is especially well-documented. Accordingly, the left had historically responded with anti-aristocratic rhetoric - especially against the rich. Mark Twain pointed out that Gilded Age robber barons loved medieval architecture. From the American Revolution to the New Deal, conservatives were often called monarchists and Tories. Of course, World War II changed that making it fashionable to call reactionaries fascists. But conservatives are still called Tories throughout the rest of the English-speaking world, and I ultimately argue that we should revive the label stateside.

So, without additional ado, here is the chapter:

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

On Property & Party Pooping

Guys like Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly like to play like they are above any party. It is part of conservatives' larger libertarian charade. The Fox News crowd likes to pretend to be independents who are only interested on honoring the founding fathers' original intent. But apart from Bill O'Reilly claiming that he believes in global warming, their criticism of the GOP consists entirely of claiming it is not conservative enough. The Tea Party's calling their targets in the primaries "RINOs" (for Republican in Name Only) sort of spoils the affectation.

Accordingly, they are awfully fond of quotes by the founders lamenting the evils of political parties. James Madison, "the Father of the Constitution," thought parties were unavoidable, but he gave five guidelines for mitigating their dangers. Two of his five guidelines focus on regulating the accumulation of wealth: 

In every political society, parties are unavoidable. A difference of interests, real or supposed, is the most natural and fruitful source of them. The great object should be to combat the evil: 1. By establishing a political equality among all. 2. By withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches. 3. By the silent operation of laws, which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort. 4. By abstaining from measures which operate differently on different interests, and particularly such as favor one interest at the expence [sic] of another. 5. By making one party a check on the other, so far as the existence of parties cannot be prevented, nor their views accommodated.

 - James Madison, Papers of James Madison, ed. Robert A. Rutland, et al. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983), 14:197-198.

Surely, we as a people can come together around this wise advice from Mr. Madison. Let me be the first to extend the olive branch.

EDIT 12/17/15:

And almost nobody in politics shows what a shabby charade being "above parties" is quite like Donald Trump. This Washington Post article argues that he is an ideological moderate despite his extreme ideas. And the Post is technically correct. Trump is a maverick on taxes and said that going into Iraq was a mistake. Normally, you only see this "non-partisan" charade from pundits rather than candidates. But Trump is not unique. Recall the appeal of Ross Perot.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Self-Evident Explained

Today, a friend asked me “[I]f it's self-evident, why write a book explaining it?”  I surmise that he was joking, but I replied that it is like "The Emperor's New Clothes." There are those who are in deep denial. See also "the elephant in the living room." Pointing out the obvious is an important profession.

Here is another example. Georgia GOP candidate Jody Hince claims that Islam is not protected by the first Amendment because it is not really a religion:

Most people think Islam is a religion, it’s not. It’s a totalitarian way of life with a religious component. But it’s much larger. It’s a geo-political system that has governmental, financial, military, legal and religious components. And it’s a totalitarian system that encompasses every aspect of life and it should not be protected (under U.S. law).

Yeah, that's what happens when there is no separation between church and state. He might want to think on that. He also might want to consider the implications of his argument. Beyond saying a spade is not a spade, is he saying that the First Amendment does not protect advocating a particular way of life? I'm sure that, if he was asked, his mind would snap to gay marriage and he would quickly say "Yes!" But, he would be putting his own way of life at risk as well.

It’s an interesting variant to Bill O’Reilly’s argument that Christmas is a secular holiday because Christianity is not really a religion but a philosophy – a claim that I would imagine most devout Christians would find offensive and dispute. It's kind of interesting how he throws his religion under a bus to advance his religion. He really does believe in the resurrection!

But, to be clear, our founders were a pretty secular bunch. As Thomas Jefferson wrote about the passage of Virginia’s Act for Religious Freedom:

Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo [sic] and Infidel of every denomination.

In Article 11 of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the U.S. and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary (1797), The administration of John Adams had explicitly stated, “As the Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion; it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Musselmen [sic]."

And, in his “Memorial and Remonstrance,” James Madison asked, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions may establish, with the same ease, any particular sect of Christians in exclusion to all other sects?”

Who indeed. That is why the self-evident requires explanation.

We've Always Been at War with Eastasia / Iraq

Last week, Koch Bros. operative Tyler Cowen wrote an op-ed in the New York Times which made the strange claim that re-invading Iraq would be good for the economy. I am not sure which was more bizarre - his arguing for more war or the spectacle of a Koch shill making a Keynesian economic argument.

Of course, he says it is not Keynesian at all, but a question of national focus. It is kind of like Stu Bykofsky saying that we need another 9-11 to restore our sense of purpose.* But there is no denying that government spending had jump-started and turbo-charged the economy many times in our recent history. World War II pulled us out of the Great Depression. Cold War military spending made our economy hum even when we were not in a hot conflict - hence the term "Cold War." Hot or cold, we were still arming for war and that spending stimulated the economy. And investing in infrastructure like Ike's national highway program had twofold benefits - not only did it operate in the regular Keynesian fashion of lowering unemployment and increasing consumer buying power, it also directly stimulated internal trade by speeding transportation. And, of course, it was a boon for the automobile industry which, in turn, sped suburban construction (along with the G.I. Bill and F.H.A. housing loans). This is to say nothing of all the technological breakthroughs from the arms race and the space race. Al Gore did not invent the Internet; but, in contrast to the claim that it "cannot innovate," government did. Over and over again.

In short, "libertarian" think tank head Tyler Cowen is arguing for big government! It was further proof of my oft made claim that those on right do not actually believe in anything. As I have said before, "Like people who are in love with the idea of being in love, [conservatives] are in love with the idea of having deep beliefs." They just want to belong to a team and have an enemy - the exact details are unimportant. Yes, they love to get into pissing contests about ideological purity, but they are ultimately about feeling harder rather than thinking harder. One example I give in my book: 

For example, during the 2012 GOP presidential primaries, Mitt Romney’s Tea Party-favored rivals attacked how he amassed his great wealth. Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry called Romney’s years running Bain Capital “vulture capitalism.” This was odd because conservatives had always called such rhetoric “punishing success.” The irony was not lost on all conservatives. As Charles Krauthammer quipped, “Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO nods approvingly. Michael Moore wonders aloud whether Gingrich has stolen his staff.” Then, Sarah Palin waded into the fray backing Gingrich and Perry. The crowning irony was that these three all objected to Romney because they doubted his conservative convictions. 

Therefore, any allegations of inconsistency or hypocrisy do not bother them. To them, the charge of "hypocrisy" is, like "racist," just an insult that you hurl at your foes. Things like logic or historical context are irrelevant to them. This explains all their ass-backwards analogies, like racists invoking Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks or homophobes making Holocaust references (oblivious to where that pink triangle comes from). Granted, anyone can garble their facts or make an unfortunate comparison. But when a liberal does, they lose stock among other liberals. When a conservative does, it fires up the base. As I write elsewhere in my book:

All negative associations get linked together – even mutually-exclusive ones. As humorist Andy Borowitz quipped, “Is Hillary Clinton an evil genius capable of masterminding the most elaborate cover-up in U.S. history? Or is she a frail old woman with brain damage who is incapable of serving as President? The Republicans’ answer: BOTH.” 

Again, it is all about like and dislike. To many conservatives, most nouns are either positively or negatively charged with little meaning beyond that. Yes, they understand the dictionary definitions of those words, but the good or bad association is more important. They grasp that the word “racist” is negative label, so they add it to their verbal arsenal. But there is not much thought about what racism really is or how it works behind their usage. The word is just a rhetorical hand grenade to lob back over the wall. Likewise, they realize that the word “stupid” is an insult and they routinely sling it at scientists, academics, and other accredited experts they disagree with – which is most of them.

The need to be on a team eclipses all else and excuses all else. Read the footnote, if you doubt me. Having a purpose is all important. What that purpose is - or its proven results are - is irrelevant. Hence the right's undeterred desire to re-invade Iraq. Indeed, like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) (who they deem insufficiently conservative), they wish to get us into as many Middle Eastern was as possible and then some. If you invented a fictional country, they would want to invade it - because that would "unify us."


* Yes, Stu Bykofsky actually said that. And Fox News host John Gibson was not merely respectful of Bykofsky's position, but callously supportive. Moreover, Glenn Beck agreed when his guest, Michael Scheuer, made the same claim.Wanting another 9-11 is actually a conservative talking point.