Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Returning to torture

Every now and again, the question comes up about whether torture is reliable.

Today I remembered a little tidbit that I then checked on.

If you've followed the "debate" about whether or not the United States should engage in torture, you may have heard of SERE training, Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape training, and you've heard that people are subjected to practices there that ended up providing the basis for the tortures the US engaged in.

People have argued that, if we can do these things safely to our own troops, surely it must be okay to do them to prisoners.

There are two things that are missing from that debate.

First off, if you're in the military, you have to learn certain painful lessons. If you're at high risk of being captured, you have to be aware of just how awful it can be to be captured. The tortures undergone as part of SERE training is to make sure that a service member is bound and determined not to get captured. "Anything - living on nasty tasting, but non-toxic plants, sleeping in the cold, hard, rocky ground - anything is better than what I might face if captured."

That we do it to our own soldiers does not mean it's acceptable to do it to others.

Second, a quick Google pulled up this post from someone on the other side of the argument. It corroborates the tidbit I remembered.

Students are transported to a prison facility and then get the Full Monty of coercive interrogation techniques in order to get them to sign a paper admitting to war crimes. All students know going in that they would spend less than a week in the prison, and that they couldn't actually be damaged permanently, yet virtually everyone of these macho studs "Signs Ze Papah" (Remember him stupeed one?).


Translation: people who are are fully aware that they will be free in less than a week, people with complete confidence that they won't be hurt, almost universally give false information.

And not just false information, information that is extremely damaging to them. They confess to crimes.

Does torture work? Well, it can elicit false confessions. But unreliable information wastes time and resources, so torture would be a bad idea even if it wasn't morally repugnant.

Monday, March 24, 2008

A quick web search reveals...

... that Ann Coulter thinks that Reverend Wright is a terrible person for speaking hatefully about other people in America.

Which is, of course, hypocrisy of the highest order.

I have to say, while that woman is able to sell books and appear on major news programs, I don't think the Republicans have a leg to stand on when it comes to trying to attack Obama based upon the former pastor of his church. So, on the one hand, that's upsetting.

On the other hand, today I realized something. These folks are running scared, sweating bullets, and digging as deep as they can to get dirt on Obama. And what have they come up with?

His wife said she was "really proud" (not just, you know, ordinary proud) of her country for the first time - oh, and she later says that of course, she meant the political process, not pride in America as a whole. And that proves that she "hates America" because if you're just ordinary proud of America, that's code for hating America in wingnutese.

So, they have the slander of wingnuts. And they have his willingnes to stick around in a church that has a preacher that has said some upsetting stuff.

That's all they can tar him with, is guilt by association. His wife, based upon a spite-filled misinterpretation of what she said, and the man who baptized him, for having some angry ideas that he's willing to share from the pulpit. [1]

They can't get him. They can't show that Wright's comments had any negative effect on him at all. They can't point to any nastiness associated with him.

So they have to start digging into what other people say. "Judge Obama by other people, because if you judge him by the content of his character[2], the Republicans are well and truly screwed." And that's something to feel good about.

Deep down, they know that they're beaten, unless they find a lucky handful of mud to sling. So they will keep slinging away.

Maybe we should start a betting pool. When, exactly, will they start going after second order character smears? How far out will they go? Will they find out that Michelle Obama's sophomore college roommate had a friend who was a member of a group that used to have ties to another organization that, well, you get the idea.

How far will the go? How low will they go? And how much are they willing to take the chance that going further, and lower, will bring up some high power hatred, and completely sink them?


[1] I suppose you could include Rezco. Of course, there's no "there", there, but that doesn't stop the sleaze merchants from trying to pretend there might be, without any evidence whatsoever.

[2] *please* tell me I don't have to identify the quote....

Friday, March 21, 2008

Learning from the past

Today, Glenn Greenwald is talking about an issue that's sure to keep cropping up. People will keep saying "quit playing the blame game; let's think about how we should be going forward in Iraq, and stop worrying about how we got there!"

Well, it's not like we can't do both, you know. If you get punched in the nose by someone, you can tilt your head back and pinch your nostrils shut, and still say "that person over there punched me in the nose!" (Sure, you'll sound funny saying it with a bloody, pinched-shut nose, but you can do it.)

But more importantly, this isn't a situation where people have said "Okay, I was wrong, here, here, here, and here. I've learned my lesson, I should have done ABC instead of XYZ." A great many of the war's cheerleaders, and nearly all of those in power, are still keeping their fingers crossed, hoping they can point to something they are able to call a victory. They are hoping that they can claim they were right all along, in spite of their numerous failures.

You can't "forget about the past and focus only on the future" until the lessons of the past are learned.

Glenn also links to a really great essay by Andrew Sullivan. This is the kind of thing people need to say. If anyone wants to complain about his prior support to the war, now he can say "I've already admitted to my mistakes; can we focus on the future, please?"

It also contains an idea that I think has been most missing from both pro- and anti-war statements:
And [Saddam Hussein] was a monster, as we discovered. But what I failed to grasp is that war is also a monster, and that unless one weighs all the possibly evil consequences of an abstractly moral act, one hasn't really engaged in anything much but self-righteousness. I saw war's unknowable consequences far too glibly.


Glenn complains that Sullivan has a utilitarian view of warfare - it's okay to fight when the good done outweighs the harm. But in the end, that's how we make all moral decisions. The danger is when we aren't properly weighing the good and the harm.

All too often, people think of warfare as something that one must accept, as if it were a force of nature. "Sure, people will die; people die in a war, it's a shame that it happens," they'll say, and I wish I was engaging in caricature to say that many dismissed the deaths of actual human beings so callously.

They decide it's okay if people die if they're soldiers of the enemy. Maybe soldiers don't really count. Maybe they don't feel pain, maybe they don't leave behind grieving parents, spouses, children, etc.. They decide it's okay if people die so long as we try to minimize the loss of life. Because, wouldn't that matter to you, if you were being killed by a military force? Knowing that they tried to minimize casualties, but, hell, you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs?

In the end, we have to weigh our moral choices by the consequences of a failure to act, versus the consequences of our other potential actions. And if the cost of failing to act is higher, we should act. But we have to remember that the killing of other people is a huge cost, a huge consequence of our actions. Sure, it's easy to blow it off, it's easy to ignore it, if the people who are dying are far away. That is the failure of many who weigh the costs of war. They look at the costs to us, to our people, to our country. They forget the essential humanity of the other side.

And in the end, where does that leave us? In an amoral state, where the only "rule" is that might makes right.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Unnecessary questions

Lanny Davis at the Huffington Post has questions for Senator Obama.

Mr. Davis, lemme 'splain something to you, 'kay?

You ask about Wright being on Obama's religious advisory committee. When a Presidential candidate takes someone on board as part of any committee, like a religious advisory committee, who do you think the boss is?

The committee? Or the candidate?

Who do you think gets to say "Are you willing to follow orders?" Who do you think gets to say "I will listen to your views, and give them my full consideration, but I'm the one who's in charge here?" That's right. The candidate. Senator Obama is in charge. Reverend Wright was someone who'd talk to him, and provide advice that may, or may not, be accepted.

As for your other question, regarding the content of sermons, you're trying to play two games. First, you're insinuating that there's no difference between a black man angry about injustice that he feels has been perpetrated, and a racist talking about hating "niggers".

Second, you're conflating a church with a pastor at a church. A church, at its best, is a family, a group of people who feel bound together, and part of each other's lives. And yes, sometimes a member gets all het up and shouts and maybe even throws things - though never throws anything at someone - and they all have various opinions about it. But he's a part of the family. And if, on the whole, he takes his duty to the family seriously, and does good for them, and shows that, overall, he is a good man who gets angry and yells sometimes, then the family does not reject him. They just learn to quietly tune him out when he's yelling, and let him yell himself out. And then, if he's raised some good points, they consider the good points he raised, and ignore the stuff that was just anger speaking.

Judge Senator Obama by who he is, not by the occasional angry rantings of a member of his church.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

More on Obama's speech

I think the saddest reaction I saw to Obama's speech was someone complaining that he had accomplished his purpose, and now, if people kept trying to hang reverend Wright around Obama's neck, they'd be called racist.

His speech is rightfully being considered one of the great moments in oratory, and someday, maybe, just maybe, it might be seen as one of the great turning points in race relations in the United States.

And these people were afraid that they might lose their toy before they were done playing with it. They couldn't keep attacking Senator Obama for what someone else said, because, damn it all, Obama managed to wow a lot of people with a lot of pretty words.

It's sad in a lot of ways, but the saddest part of it is that it seems extremely likely that they can't simply accept that maybe Obama isn't wowing anyone with a lot of pretty words. Maybe he's just telling the plain truth, as best as he can. Maybe he really is a good man, with a good heart, and good wisdom.

I'm a bit scared; a lot of people have mentioned the same fear... could this really be true? Could he really be real? Could he really be sincere, saying what he believes, and it just so happens that it's what we've been wanting to hear for so long?

And rather than having to ask that question, there are people who'd rather just complain that they've lost a potential avenue of attack for tearing the man down.

I hate liars

Obviously, with a title like that, I must have seen some liars, right? Well, here's what happened.

Barack Obama wrote about certain statements his former pastor had made.

The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation. When these statements first came to my attention, it was at the beginning of my presidential campaign. I made it clear at the time that I strongly condemned his comments. But because Rev. Wright was on the verge of retirement, and because of my strong links to the Trinity faith community, where I married my wife and where my daughters were baptized, I did not think it appropriate to leave the church.

Let me repeat what I've said earlier. All of the statements that have been the subject of controversy are ones that I vehemently condemn. They in no way reflect my attitudes and directly contradict my profound love for this country.


See that? The particular statements that were the cause of the controversy were not made when Barack Obama was in the pews.

During his incredible speech on Tuesday, he said this:

Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in the church? Yes.


Could an honest, well meaning person make the mistake of thinking

"I did not hear a sermon containing certain particular controversial remarks"

is the same as

"I never heard any sermon containing any controversial remarks"?

No. Not unless that person was extremely stupid.

'nuff said, no need to name names.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Who is to blame? The consumer?

We all know what's up with the sub-prime mortgage crisis, right? A bunch of stupid people bought houses they couldn't afford on mortgages that they should have read and understood better, right?

Wrong.

I have to say, I am pretty impressed at how well that meme plays out in the press, but it ignores basic history. There was a time in this country when a mortgage was hard to get, and the most important part of getting a mortgage was convincing a bank that you could pay for it. If you got the mortgage at all, it was because the bank's prognosticators had looked into their ten-year crystal balls, and decided they saw little chance of a foreclosure. Because, after all, a foreclosure is a disaster for the lender as well as the borrower. Banks don't want to sell houses! Banks want to take in and lend out money; that's what they do.

At least, that's how it used to be. Nowadays, a bank makes a loan, and then sells the loan to someone else, to reacquire the principle to make another loan, and pick up all the fees and a profit on the principle, and hand all the risk of foreclosure off to someone else. Why would they care if you can pay it back?

Now, wouldn't it be great if consumers could read through a mortgage contract and understand exactly what they were facing under what circumstances? Sure, it'd be great. It'd also be great if citizens could all read the tax code and understand all of the various implications of having a deduction for this, a credit for that, and not just for individuals, but for corporations, and for certain business sectors. But they can't. Not even individual tax accountants and attorneys can do that; they all specialize to the extent that they can(/must!) to help their specific clients.

We've all grown up in an area where a certain set of expectations existed, where it was understood that, sure, a bank was looking out for itself, but it also had - for its own protection! - to look out for the borrower to some degree as well. We've all grown up in a world where, if you couldn't afford a mortgage, for the life of the mortgage (or at least the first five years), you would be refused the mortgage. The rules changed on the consumer; now, if you are offered a mortgage, you should be suspicious before you are glad.

Blaming the consumers for failing to understand a completely changed landscape, when the financial big brains of the country were talking about how easy, and wonderful, it was to own your own house, is blaming the wrong set of people.

Blame the people who said that housing prices would keep rising, and that refinancing (or flipping), a home were trivially easy. Blame the people who cared only about the short term profits, and tried to get people into houses regardless of their ability to pay. And, if the allegations are true - they may not be, but please do not forget them, so you don't think it's a new acussation - send all of your outrage towards those who channeled certain minorities, including many who qualified for standard mortgages, into the sub-prime market.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The wit and wisdom of Barack Obama - yes, really

In jumping on him, Andrew Ferguson shows why the nation needs Barack Obama.

Give that article a read, and then let me draw your attention to two specifics.

First, Mr. Ferguson asks what "we are the ones we've been waiting for" means. He decides it must mean that Obama's followers think of themselves as being smarter than anyone else, ever.

While Ferguson endagers asthmatics with his thorough thrashing of a strawman, let's consider what it could mean.

We are the ones we've been waiting for... if we are the very people we've been waiting for, then... then what *are* we waiting for? Let's accomplish things!

It's a simple message. We're here; we can have change if we demand it. We have the power, and we don't need to (and, in fact, must not) wait for someone to come and cause these changes.

So why not "let's act"? Why the stilted sentence?

Because people have been waiting. They've seen that something is wrong, and they haven't quite been sure how to fix it. Even Mr. Ferguson should recognize this... but perhaps he doesn't.

He later abuses Senator Obama for listing problems, but refusing to list specific people who caused them. This, then, is trickery (either of himself - Ferguson acknowledges that Obama seems sincere - or others).

But is it?

In Ferguson's world, people fight to grab power and that's to be expected, and people fight to keep power, or grab more. And that's put us where we are today, where politics has become a bit of a blood sport and where people are routinely demonized for different opinions, because that's the most efficient way to make a power grab. That's the way the world works, and thus, if Obama thinks that we need health care reform, it must mean that he should be demonizing someone for creating the health care mess we have today.

But in the real world, is it ever that simple? And even if it was, even if there were people who clearly deserved to be blamed for the health care mess we have, which would be more important, blaming them, or fixing the problem?

Which would be better, a trial in which we got to (metaphorically speaking) throw over-ripe tomatoes and rotten eggs at the people who helped ruin our health care system, or a health care plan that starts to make sure that everyone can receive medical care without having to be terrified of the costs? I'd pick the latter, and I wouldn't care if, in the end, the people who helped ruin our health care system ended up grabbing some of the credit for fixing things.

You don't need to demonize a set of bad guys to fix a problem. You can just fix it, and let the bad guys go, in most (non-criminal) cases.

Fascinating idea, isn't it? Putting the good of the country ahead of the ability to point to specific people and say "they are bad people!" Isn't it one crazy world where such an idea isn't implicitly understood by everyone?

That's why this country needs Barack Obama. And that's why I'm hoping he wins both the nomination and the general election.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

About journalism and reporting

When should a reporter allow a person to go off the record?

I've heard some incredible crap about how Gerri Peev is some kind of monster - and that's on the record, but I am paraphrasing other people's complaints - for quoting Samantha Power saying that Hillary is a monster, followed immediately by "that's off the record".

I'm not a journalist, and I don't know journalist's ethics, but I do know common sense.

And on the one hand, I think that reporters have to recognize that they're speaking to people who are generally in an agitated state (be it excited, angry, sad, or whatever - you don't report on things so boring that no one is agitated over them). People in those states will blurt out things that don't truly represent their feelings.

On the other hand, what did Power say? Did she say "Hillary Clinton is a monster - no, I'm sorry, that's not really fair, could you take that off the record?" No, the reported quote is "She is a monster, too – that is off the record – she is stooping to anything".

Unless Ms. Peev has removed context, then I think it was fair to report that. This sounds like a person blurting out something that she really feels is true, not a person accidentally blurting out something she doesn't really believe. Reporters are supposed to report the truth, as best as they can, and while this wasn't exactly a pleasant truth, I think Ms. Peev is justified in reporting it.

If you want to be upset at people over this flap, I'd be upset at the Clinton boosters who tried to turn this into a game of "gotcha". So, what, one of Obama's people is upset about Clinton and used an awful word to describe her? Big deal; it's a political campaign, and it wasn't an official campaign statement.

What does bother me is some stuff that Glenn Greenwald discusses. Tucker Carlson suggests that Gerri Peev was wrong to report something that Samantha Power asked her not to report, because it makes journalists' jobs harder. People are less willing to talk to reporters, he says, if reporters might go around telling the truth about their conversations!

Well, I'm sorry, but the answer is simple, and it's exactly what Gerri Peev suggested: make sure it's clear when a conversation is on the record or not. If you're talking to a reporter about anything newsworthy, and it's not established as off the record, it's on the record.

Yes, that means you won't have as many of the famous and powerful people being all buddy-buddy with you. It also means you won't have them manipulating you nearly as much. Maybe you won't have as much to report, but what you have is going to be much, much closer to the truth.

And isn't getting closer to the truth what journalism is supposed to be about?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The obscenity in New York

Well, I'm sure you've all heard about the shameful, sleazy story about Governor Eliot Spitzer.

Yes, that's right... the GOP is insisting that he resign or face impeachment before any proof of any criminal activity has surfaced. How sleazy can you get?

I know, I know... I'm supposed to act all shocked and horrified that Spitzer has been with a prostitute. And I will be angry as all hell, once it's established that he did something illegal. But it's both possible to run a legal escort service, and to behave legally with an escort, so I'd like to hear an actual crime before there's talk of impeachment.

But isn't it awful, a married man meeting a prostitute? Well, that depends on what he did with her. If he has a weird kink that he can play out with another woman, his wife might even be glad he's doing that so she doesn't have to worry about him asking her to do the honors. That's between them. So, again, I want to hear about a crime before I start wanting to hear about possible criminal penalties.

Now, I have heard a disturbing story that, even if he did nothing but hire an escort and behave legally, the government might still go after him for a crime called "structuring", because he fiddled around with smaller amounts of money in a way that might avoid setting off alarms.

Frankly, I have a bit of a problem using that kind of law to catch real criminals, but when you go after Al Capone, sometimes you need to hit him for tax evasion because you can't prove anything else. But using it against someone when there's no other crime (yet) established is awfully fishy. People died because of Al Capone; no one is going to die because of Spitzer.

Now, don't get me wrong... I'm thoroughly disgusted by his hypocrisy. He used to bust up prostitution rings, and since the feds were able to bust up this one, he was willing to engage in behavior that he used to put people in jail for. Even if he didn't, personally, break the law, that's truly ugly behavior. Also, if and when he is charged with crimes relating to prostitution, his past eliminates any sympathy I might feel for him.

(You see, I'm ambivalent about prosecuting prostitution. Today, on another blog, I saw a perfect summary of my feelings: if two people, acting freely, choose to have sex for a porn film, and both get paid, it's legal. But if two people, acting freely, choose to have sex without the cameras rolling, and only one gets paid, it's illegal. Yes, I know, the issue is a lot more complicated than that, and most prostitutes aren't making a free choice, and so on, and so forth. That's why I'm ambivalent.)

But before I'm willing to accept that he must resign, or that he should face impeachment, I want to see a lot more than claims that maybe he did some financial fiddling or met with an escort, without proof of illegal behavior.

He's done some awful things, I grant you. But George W. has started a war, killing scores of thousands of innocent people, and the New York GOP hasn't said boo about that, so before I listen to them call for Spitzer's head, I at least want to see a real, honest-to-goodness criminal charge brought forward.

If that crime is one meriting impeachment, then they certainly should go forward. But jumping the gun before the facts are in is really sleazy.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

One of the things I keep trying to get myself to do is write about big, hidden issues that most people don't recognize. I'm weird, after all, so I see the weird stuff that some other folks might miss.

One of the biggest issues we face is a set of ideas promulgated by the laissez faire capitalist wannabes. Adam Smith had this wonderful theory that the free market could regulate itself, and it might be able to, if there was unlimited capital and unlimited markets.

For example, if a person starts a factory that has dangerous conditions for the workers, sure, the workers will find another place to work... if there's another, safer factory hiring workers. And if the market is supporting the second factory's higher costs (because safety measures cost time and money). And if the second factory is paying a living wage. And so on....

Adam Smith's dream world might work in theory, but as everyone should know, most of the time that someone says "in theory," it's because they can't say "in reality". In the real world, completely unregulated capitalism creates a situation where (economic) might makes right, and I hope I don't have to explain that this is the antithesis of every moral system worthy of the name.

So, after a rambling introduction, let me start with one of my boring essays on a principle that I think merits thinking about :-).

One of the hidden issues that's surfaced within my lifetime is a sensible-sounding one. It's the idea that a corporation has a duty to its shareholders to maximize profits. How could you argue with that? After all, the stockholders are the bosses, right?

No. A corporation's officers are in charge of the corporation. The stockholders might have the right to fire the officers, but until they do, the officers remain in charge. A stockholder might also be an officer, of course, but it's the position as an officer that grants control, not the ownership of stock.

So what are stockholders? Well, buying stock in a company is a purchase of a share of future profits and, if the corporation dissolves, a share of the remaining assets after all debts are settled. It also generally gives you voting rights to determine the officers of the company, but not direct control over the company itself.

So where does this canard come from, that the shareholders are the bosses? Well, there's two places it comes from, and both are based in self interest, not duty.

First, if holders of a majority of voting stock don't like how the officers are running the corporation, they'll vote in new officers. So the officers, out of a desire to keep their jobs, might choose to do things to keep the holders of a majority of the shares happy.

Second, stock represents a share in future profits; if there are lower future profits, obviously, the stock is worth less. Chasing higher profits will increase the stock valuation, and attract more buyers who want a share of those increasing profits. But again, this is clearly self interest, not a moral duty.

So why do so many people pretend that corporations have some duty to their shareholders?

Well, first, there are some duties that corporations have. A corporation that misrepresents its financial position or its future intentions, or that engages in certain egregious breaches of shareholder trust (say, selling a very profitable branch to a member of the board of directors at a loss) can be the target of legal action. None of those duties include "maximizing profits".

No, the place where I recall the story first being told was back in the early 80s, when there were some mass layoffs occurring. People were angry that big corporations were shedding workers like they were stained clothing, and the companies wanted a nice soundbite to try to deflect the anger, so they came up with one. "Our duty is to our shareholders," they said. "We have a responsibility to cut expenses and maximize profits."

So, you see, people were angry that the greedy corporations were firing loyal employees out of greed, but the corporations said, no, no, no, they were doing it out of duty. But as you see, what they really meant was, they were, in fact, doing it out of greed.

There's a bit more to it than this, of course. If there are multiple competitors in a business field, and one starts cutting or offshoring workers, or making shoddier, but cheaper products, etc., the others will be afraid that if they don't follow suit, the one company will gain a competitive advantage. If one company ends up with an advantage, others can end up out of business, or bought out. But this still doesn't establish a duty... it's still a matter of self interest.

Now, let's be clear. There's nothing wrong with self interest in a lot of situations. If I try to buy something, both the seller and I are operating out of self interest, and unless I'm being cheated or coerced, it's a good thing. The trouble comes in when folks try to represent self interest as a duty. For example, President Bush keeps pretending that his wholesale violations of FISA must be kept secret, that he has a duty to the American people. Well, that's doubly disgusting. He has a duty to obey and uphold the law, and to see that those who violate the law are punished. He doesn't have a duty to keep his lawbreaking secret. But alas, he does have a responsibility to keep important things secret, so his base is happily declaring that keeping his lawbreaking secret is proper.

Oh, did I fall into a rant? Sorry about that.

But it shows the point I'm driving at. Just because something serves self interest doesn't make it good, and claiming that one is serving a higher duty to excuse ugly behavior is an especially horrible form of dishonesty.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Understanding the fear

You know, I think I understand why some folks on the right are so terrified of the terrorists.

Look at what one of their leaders says:

"I have some news," McCain said. "Al-Qaeda is in Iraq. It's called al-Qaeda in Iraq. My friends, if we left, they wouldn't be establishing a base, they'd be taking a country and I'm not going to allow that to happen."


(taken from here, but only because it's the first place I found the quote.)

Okay, folks, follow me here.

Iraq consists about about 60% Shiite Muslims, about 20% Kurds, and about 20% Sunni Muslims.

Al Qaeda is a Sunni group.

Most Sunnis in Iraq despise Al Qaeda.

Yet against the resistance of over 90% of the population, Al Qaeda will just magically take over the country! (60% Shiites, 20% Kurds, and >10% Sunnis)

When their leaders feed them lines of crap like this ("straight talker" indeed!) it's no wonder they are irrational about how to deal with the threat.

Hopefully, reality will kick in sooner, not later.

As I was saying...


As I was saying in my last post
, Senator Obama has taken a stand that will be used against him by those who want gay folks to be second class citizens.

The way the right wing argues against gay marriage is really interesting. They realize that they haven't got a leg to stand on when people ask "why the heck not?" so they insist, over and over, that allowing gay folks to marry would be harmful to marriage, nay, to all of society, because marriage is the foundation upon which societies are built.

Like with so, so many of their arguments, it works, as long as you don't bother thinking about it. The concept of marriage generally arose over issues of property. I reckon that before sufficient complexities over property arose, there were plenty of families, but no need for a body of law to make decisions about how to deal with them.

What happened before there were these laws? Well, the relationship is what made people a family. I like to say that "love makes a family," but I think love was probably considered the icing on the cake for many people. For most of human history, marriage has been a partnership. There just wasn't the opportunity to dabble around, living your life until you found "the one". So you found someone you thought would be a decent partner for you, and hoped you were right. That didn't make the familial bond any less important. Whether it was based on deep and abiding love, or a working partnership, it was still a family.

Well, today, there are plenty of families consisting of two men or two women, and possibly children. These are families; the relationship, and hopefully, the love, makes the family. It's long past time that the government recognized that familial bond.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Thoughts about Obama and gay rights

I have a curious habit born of a vivid imagination. I often write mini-stories in my head; they're parables sometimes, or ways of looking at an issue. There's one that's been especially vivid over the years.

Two large-ish badasses in a bar are devoted queer stompers, and determined to do some damage to a man who... well, the kind of man whose manner of dress and manner brings to mind the words "screaming queen." Even if the words are spoken with warm acceptance, and even affection, no one denies that they seem appropriate.

Seeing what's going down, a man steps in the way. Back off, he says. He ain't hurt nobody, he ain't so much as leered.

Queer stompers don't tend to go too easy on folks who stand in the way of their fun, and these two are no exceptions... but though this gentleman isn't exactly relishing the thought of a fight, he's unwilling to step aside.

It's a public place, and the element of surprise is lost. A couple cell phones are out, and someone's going to call the cops if this goes one step further, and the assailants realize this. The crisis is averted.

In tearful gratitude, our gay friend tries to say his thank yous to his protector. The response is nasty: "fuck off, faggot. If you didn't dress like fucking fruit cocktail, you wouldn't run into this kind of trouble." Because, after all, he's never liked "faggots", especially not when they dress and act like this one does.

What do you call this man, who stands up to a pair of queer stompers, but hates gay folks?

The answer is "one of the good guys." Someone who will stand up against injustice, even when it puts him at risk, and even when he doesn't have any affection for the victim.

Sure, I'd like my imaginary protective good guy a lot more if he was kindly and more tolerant. In fact, if I didn't know of his protective tendencies, I might end up hating his guts, if I heard him complain about gay folks. But in the end, he stands up for what's right, when he knows it's important.

This came to mind because I've heard some folks being bothered by Barack Obama's somewhat lukewarm support for some issues (like gay marriage), and his willingness to associate with some folks who are pretty strongly anti-gay.

Recently, he's said that he thinks there needs to be something - domestic partnerships, civil unions, or civil marriage - for gay folks.

Is it enough? I don't really think so. I'd really prefer he support nothing less than full civil marriage... just like I'd prefer that my imaginary friend were kindly and tolerant. But he agrees that there is injustice, and he's willing to take a stand against it... and that's a lot more courage than a lot of Democrats have shown. He's put his money down; anyone who opposes gay marriage can insist that a vote for Obama is a step down the slippery slope. He's taken a risk.

I think it's enough to call him one of the good guys.

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