A robo-call

This past Saturday, I came back from a nice day out with my kids, to find a call waiting for me on the answering machine, transcribed verbatim herewith:

Hello, this is Jerry Falwell Jr, calling to urge you to go to the polls on November 8 or better yet, vote early by mail or absentee ballot. I believe Jesus was instructing us all to be good citizens and to vote when he said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” I hope you will elect candidates who will defend the right to life, our religious liberties, the second amendment, and the state of Israel. The stakes could not be higher with the balance of the Supreme Court for the next generation at risk. Please urge your friends and family to vote as well. Thank you and god bless you.

Paid for by Faith and Freedom Coalition. Callback number 770-622-1501.

I have no idea how this group got my phone number, so I’m acting on the assumption that they just called everyone. I consider Mr. Falwell’s father one of the most repulsive people to ever walk this earth, and, as far as I can tell by the public pronouncements of the man whose voice graced my machine, he himself isn’t much better.

I question whether anyone actually believes that that particular passage in Mark 12:17 actually meant for people to go out and vote. Yes, I know that a lot of Christians have used this particular chapter and verse to justify the notion that separation of church and state is somehow biblically sanctioned (despite scores of contradictory passages). But even that interpretation is more reasonable than what Mr. Falwell said in the recording in question.

If we take the Biblical reference here to be a statement of fact, then Jesus was telling his followers that he wasn’t there to overthrow the Roman occupation. Jerry (if I may call him that) conveniently left out the “Render unto God what is God’s” from that same chapter and verse.

I do defend a right to life. It’s why I’m pro-choice and vote for pro-choice candidates when I can. I think I’ve written enough on that topic that I don’t need to rehash it here. I do think it would be interesting to know, though, the reasons why women who have abortions, have chosen to have them. That ought to humanize the decision a little bit more and maybe cause those who would insist on an absolute ban on the procedure to realize the wrongheadedness of their position. (Especially in a climate that offers neither preventative measures nor post-birth assistance.)

I also defend religious liberties. I must draw the line, though, on things that Mr. Falwell and his ilk try to do, when they seek to impose their religious viewpoints on others. It’s why I have been saying since 2004, when Pat Toomey challenged Sen. Arlen Specter for his senate seat in Pennsylvania, that I can’t in good conscience vote republican until such time as the party exorcises itself of the demons of the religious right.

I recently wrote about how the second amendment seems to hold a unique place in the American fringe right in terms of their adherence to the constitution. Without downplaying its importance on a grander scale, it’s nowhere near as important as the rights guaranteed by the first, fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth, and fourteenth amendments to the constitution. And it’s the right enumerated within the constitution that actually requires a person to purchase something in order to exercise that right. (Unless you count the right to an attorney a “purchase”, and a strong argument can be made that it is, at least in the current environment and the way it actually works, rather than the idealized theory behind it.)

And yes, I support the state of Israel and its right to exist, but, much like the religious liberty point above, there is definitely room for criticism of the state when it oversteps its bounds. And I have no qualms whatsoever about say that Benjamin Netanyahu may be one of the most dangerous people currently living. (I think he might be competing with Vladimir Putin for the title, and I think Kim Jong-un might be gunning for that title, but he’s not quite there yet.

The Supreme Court can always make good and bad decisions. We’ve seen how the conservative-dominated court has given us some very bad decisions. In recent years, Greece v Galloway, Burwell v Hobby Lobby, and Citizens United v FEC are all laughably ridiculous rulings on their face. We need justices who would, in the event of a new challenge, overturn them.

It’s funny. Sometimes I’ve asked myself if my current (low) opinion of the Republican Party is somehow analogous to the ridiculous sentiment expressed a few months ago on the Christian film review site Movieguide, when they reviewed the Dinesh D’Souza hack piece Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party, when they spoke of the documentarian’s “battle to find out how the Democratic Party became so evil.”

I’m not a fan of the word “evil”. It has connotations and implications that do little to further rational discourse. I do not consider the Republican party “evil”. Just misguided for providing a voice to those whose opinions belong in the dustbin of history. It’s not a new phenomenon; indeed, we can point to Ronald Reagan in 1980 for first allowing the party to have a platform that comes from the Religious Right and the natural descendants of the John Birch Society. Back in the 1960’s, their views were rightly ridiculed. Now in 2016, they are attending Donald Trump rallies.

Messrs Falwell, D’Souza, and scores of other individuals need to be reminded that their ideas are so regressive, so anachronistic, so incongruent with both what America should be and is, that the only path forward is a complete repudiation of what they stand for. And the best way to do that, is through our votes.

So, I agree with Mr. Falwell about one thing: get out there and vote on or before November 8. And show him and his ilk that his brand of hatred, tribalism, and morality have no place in the America of 2016.

Here’s the recording of that call if you’re interested in hearing it.

They keep predicting…

When I was an exchange student in St Petersburg, Russia, I dated a girl named Irina.  I distinctly remember the date that we had on November 10, 1993, to the Hermitage, the art museum that previously served as the home of tsars starting with Peter I (“the Great”).  

I know the exact date because a self-proclaimed prophet who had taken the name Maria Devi Khristos (real name Marina Tsvigun) had predicted that the world would come to an end on that date.  When I met Irina on that date, I told her I was glad to have seen the museum in time for the end of the world.  By this time, my command of the Russian language had gotten good enough to express that thought with all of the requisite sarcasm.  

(Later, I underscored this language proficiency when we saw two small paintings, by the same artist, called The Sitting Room and Letter Reading, when I joked that we could probably switch the labels on these paintings and nobody would notice…)

Miss Tsvigun is but one of a very long line of Christian eschatologists who have predicted the so-called second coming, rapture, tribulation, or end of the world in a climactic battle between good and evil.  Indeed, her incident isn’t even listed on the Wikipedia page that lists such events.  

Let’s ignore the legitimate scholarly debate over whether the historical Jesus even existed. Those who believe in him are commonly called “Christians”.   Not all Christians believe in a second coming.   But wouldn’t you think that, after so many obviously wrong predictions of such an event, they’d have given up on the possibility that it would even happen?  Why do they continually fall for the obviously misguided notion that it will happen?

I realized something earlier today, though.   A lot of people who oppose Hillary Clinton for president are predicting that she’ll make Christianity illegal, or that she’ll take away your guns, or who knows what blatant and overtly unconstitutional act she might commit on poor, innocent, persecuted Christians.   There are no shortage of people making such dire predictions and Right Wing Watch has chronicled the lion’s share of these predictions.  

But you know what’s funny?  In some cases, the names of the people making these predictions have changed, but they said the same things about Sen. Barack Obama in 2008 and again in 2012.   And also about Sen. John Kerry in 2004.   And about Vice President Al Gore in 2000.  And Governor Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996.   And every democratic candidate for the presidency at least since Governor Franklin D Roosevelt in 1932.  

The fearmongering is the same.   And the people who buy this oft-repeated claim that is both inconsistent with the candidates’ positions and their records if they achieved the office of the presidency, are the same people who believe it when some preacher says the world is about to end.   

I feel sad for the educational system that let them down and left them as gullible as this, well into adulthood.   I would hope that an opposition vote would be based on an actual set of policy positions and not the strawman policies that the political right has set up in their stead.  

When will people stop believing baseless predictions of, well, anything?

The psychology of becoming president

Earlier today, I became aware of a nearly three-month old article on Scientific American that psychoanalyzes Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.   There’s no question that this article captures pretty much everything that we’ve seen from The Donald since he announced his intention to seek the presidency.   

And when I read it, I couldn’t help but think of WikiLeaks.   

Not the internal emails to and from Hillary Clinton’s advisor John Podesta.  I mean some of the information they got from Chelsea Manning while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State.  

One of the big scandals in that data dump, was that we maintained psychological profiles of foreign leaders, complete with guidance on the best tactics to use when dealing with them.   

I remember thinking at the time that this was interesting information and not exceptionally surprising even if some of the information might be less-than-flattering to both our allies and enemies.  Surely other lead diplomats in other countries maintain similar profiles; one wonders, for example, what the Russian foreign ministry thinks about President Obama, psychologically.   Conceptually, I wouldn’t be surprised if the only thing that’s truly changed about these profiles in the past, say, 500 years is the technology behind the way these profiles are maintained and the formalization of the language used.  

And I have little doubt that Hillary has had someone on her staff at least since Donald Trump became the GOP nominee, documenting him the same way foreign leaders were documented for her in the State Department.   Just look at her performance in all three debates.  And the people who spoke at the convention.  

She knew exactly how to push Trump’s buttons and baited him each time.  Whether it’s Khizr Khan at the convention, or Alicia Machado, or his tax returns, or the tape where he bragged of grabbing women by the pussy, or even last night the claim that the Emmys were rigged, he fell for pretty much everything she threw at him.  And she gave him just enough rope to hang himself.  This was most evident in both the second and third debates where Trump started out reasonably calm but after about a half hour he was becoming more visibly agitated.   

(Note: since I haven’t spoken about pussygate, I’ll just say that the scandal isn’t the use of the word “pussy”.  That’s arguably the single most common slang term for vagina and to be outraged at the use of the word is at best naive to the point of stupidity.   The outrage is in the act of bragging about the grabbing without regard to whether the person being grabbed, wanted to be grabbed…)

There’s no doubt in my mind that Hillary Clinton learned a great deal as our country’s chief diplomat, some of which we only know due to WikiLeaks.   And the simple truth is that she used it to her advantage to do to Donald Trump what sixteen republicans couldn’t do in the primaries.  

What next?

My relationship with the death penalty is a complex one, as I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions on this blog in the past. (Most recently I was talking about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving brother from the bombing of the Boston Marathon a couple of years ago.)

It would thus make sense, then, that a figure such as Timothy McVeigh should so readily personify this complexity on the topic.   I simultaneously agree with the fact that he was executed, and wonder what we might have lost by the fact that he’s no longer alive.  I wonder what my children and their children will learn about, with regard to him, when future history books are written and taught.   

Some facts are beyond dispute: following the standoff with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco, TX, Timothy McVeigh (already a part of a militia) perceived the greater incident as something he had been fearing for some time: the government really is coming to take away everyone’s guns.   

So he decided to strike back; it’s not a coincidence that he waited until exactly two years later to execute his retaliatory plan.  His hope, as he stated in more than one interview before his execution, was that he would inspire more people to join militias and prevent government intrusion on our liberties, most notably the second amendment.  

I remember reading more than one news article as the date of his execution grew closer, how he had failed in that goal and that militia membership was down, at least partially due to his own actions.  

That was in 2001, a mere three months (to the date) before 9/11, and a full seven years before the election of a black president.  

I haven’t researched enough to know if this is a true cause-effect relationship but militia membership has certainly grown since the 2008 election of Barack Obama.  Indeed, just over six months after he took the oath of office, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report on the rise of right-wing, anti-government militias.   

Whatever else is true, Donald Trump has tapped into the anger that fuels these militias.  He’s not the first and won’t be the last to do so.   The anger was already there, though.   And you can go back at least to the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912 to find propaganda that argues that putting a politician like him (read: liberal) means that the government is coming for your guns next.   

(Side note: Wilson himself is a bizarre case; overtly racist but otherwise progressive. He’s one of our harder presidents to crack in terms of his greater legacy.)

Someone needs to remind the consumers of that propaganda, that it hasn’t happened and likely won’t.   All Timothy McVeigh saw in Waco was the government trying to stop a law abiding citizen and missed all of his criminal activity.   He apparently even missed the most embarrassing fact in the original action that led to the standoff: federal agents were outgunned.   

I am a huge proponent of all of the rights and freedoms afforded to us by the constitution, especially those enumerated by the Bill of Rights, and that does include the right to keep and bear arms, even though I personally have no interest in owning a gun.   

I am far more worried about the erosion of other rights, such as due process, unreasonable search and seizure, and the right to a speedy trial.   The first, fourth, and sixth amendments are certainly more in jeopardy than the second.  It is just downright false in this day and age to argue that we need to preserve the second amendment in order to safeguard the others.   

But Trump has been expressing the anger that feeds to the misconception that the second amendment provides the most important right guaranteed by the constitution.  What will happen to his followers when he loses the election in a couple of weeks?  They’ll keep arguing that the government is coming for your guns, just like they have been for more than a hundred years.   Cliven Bundy and his son Ammon will see to that.   They’re the next generation Timothy McVeighs.  

The final skirmishes of the culture wars

A couple of years ago, after the death of Hiroo Onoda, we were reminded about how, for some people, World War II didn’t actually end in August, 1945, after the United States unleashed the only recorded deployments of weapons of mass destruction in world history. Between relatively slow-traveling news and a simple refusal to admit that you might have been wrong, it’s not uncommon for those who have lost a war, to be reluctant in admitting defeat.   

And, to some degree, they can be forgiven.  Wars are innately political machinations: you don’t need an outright declaration of hostilities to fight against someone with whom you disagree and neither a cease-fire nor a formal peace treaty will magically negate the anger, resentment, and similar sentiments that led to the war in the first place.  

And that’s not even getting into the relationship with what economists call “sunk costs” and the all-too-human tendency of continuing on a losing path simply because of the amount of resources spent already so stopping now would just be an admission of having wasted those resources.  

I mention this because there was an interesting article yesterday in the Christian Science Monitor about evangelicals sticking with Donald Trump in this election.  

For as long as the loosely-bound groups of Christians collectively known as the “religious right” have been politically active, there have been two central themes of their politics: racism and sexism.   The racism part is straightforward: whether we’re talking about support for Bob Jones University or opposition to the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, you could hear evangelical Christians arguing against anything that might level the political or economic playing field for those of us who, by accident of birth, have darker skin.  

The sexism part is a bit more pernicious.   It teaches that women are little more than temptresses and baby incubators.   It’s the catholic teaching that women are either virgins or whores with little else.   And it manifests itself in opposition to just about anything that teaches that human sexuality isn’t dirty.   Of course, the Roe vs Wade decision in 1973 was a catalyst and they refer to themselves as “pro-life”.  

If there was ever a more misleading term to describe a political position, it’s “pro-life”.  When my (now ex-) wife was pregnant with our first child, I went with her to several ob-gym appointments.   At one such appointment, the doctor referred to the clump of cells growing in her uterus as a parasite.  That’s exactly what he was at the time.  Sure, it was human DNA in the cells of that parasite, but he was no more human than my toenail clippings.   

If you oppose a medical procedure that has been demonstrated to be safe, and which can effectively rid your body of an unwelcome parasite, you’re not pro-life.   Sure, there are times when it’s not absolutely necessary to have the procedure, but there are times when it is.   The rest of the time, there’s a spectrum that ranges from “don’t do it” through various shades of gray to “yeah, it’s a good idea to do it.”  Your own mileage may vary.  But instead of “pro-life” perhaps a better description is “unable to trust women to make their own decisions.”

That doesn’t quite fit on a bumper sticker, I’ll grant you.  

In recent years, the religious right has branched out and opposes gay rights too.   Of course they would.   Letting gays and lesbians participate in society means tacitly acknowledging that people out there have sex for reasons other than baby-making.  And since it’s such a dirty, sinful act, why would they unless they were possessed by the devil?

But time after time after time, their efforts to control human sexuality have been rebuffed: by the people, by the courts, by the medical community, by humanity.  The culture wars are over and, to put it bluntly, they lost.  

The last few holdouts have thrown their support to Donald Trump because he has given a voice to their racist and sexist anger.  He has said exactly what they want to hear on topics that matter to them.  So what if he brags of sexual assault?  It — like all matters related to rape culture — fits into their narrative of the male dominating the female, sexually.  Even if he can say or do things that they might otherwise find abhorrent, he’s still pro-life.   

They’re really showing exactly what cards they have in their hands when they do this.  

I have long maintained that the Republican Party needs to excise itself of the demons of the religious right.  It’s my hope that that will actually happen after this coming election.  

A challenge I set myself about a week ago

I have long maintained that Donald Trump doesn’t deserve to be elected president of the United States, and it is indeed a part of Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategy.   He’s a bully, thin-skinned and underprepared for the demands of what, in the aftermath of the Second World War, is the single most challenging job in the world.   A job that not only requires a great ego (which he undoubtedly has) but also a level head (which he undoubtedly does not have).   One need look no further than his performance at the first of three presidential debates this past week.   

So I set myself a challenge.   If there is such a thing as a “normal” presidential election, it usually comes down to two (maybe more, depending upon historical events) candidates who are capable of doing the job and the winner is the one who convinces the majority of the electorate that they can lead the country better than their opponent(s).   When you go to cast your individual ballot, you usually side with the candidate who more closely hews to your own beliefs and opinions.  And, for the most part, you can recognize that the other candidate is up for the job, win or lose.  

By those standards, this is not a “normal” election.  There’s no question that Hillary Clinton is up for the job and for that reason alone, she deserves my vote.  Donald Trump, however, is not.   And the current disunity within his party illustrates this point.   So I asked myself if there has ever been an election in which a major candidate was less deserving of the job, than Mr. Trump is today.   

It’s easy to argue, for example, about the legacy of any given president during and after their tenure as presidents.  The general consensus among historians is that James Buchanan was our worst president but he still had the resume and temperament to be president.  But that’s not this question.  Have there been any candidates — win or lose — who deserved to lose not on the basis of the issues but rather on the basis of the core of their being?  

The first candidate that I thought of was William Jennings Bryan.  Thanks to his infamous cross of gold speech, he seemed to want to be pastor-in-chief more than being commander-in-chief.    But by all contemporary accounts, he seemed suited to the presidency anyway.  So my distaste for him is actually based upon policy and not personality.   

It’s times like this that general information could be helpful so I turned to Wikipedia for a summary of each election and the candidates involved.   Strom Thurmond in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968 both got a frighteningly high number of electoral votes for campaigning on platforms that were overtly racist.   I guess you could make the argument that they, too, were unsuited to the presidency.   And while I don’t want to completely discount third-parties I don’t think enough people took their candidacies seriously enough to think they could actually win.   

Ross Perot in 1992 had a few “wtf” moments, like when he thought someone in the government was going to sabotage his daughter’s wedding.   See above for third party candidates and add in the fact that he got zero electoral votes.  

So at least among the losing candidates, I couldn’t find anyone.  But what about the victors?   I’ve already mentioned that Buchanan was at least suited to the office, despite his numerous missteps and general ineffectiveness.   I’m not trying to come off as sounding as if all presidents are of a common temperament (just compare Andrew Jackson to Calvin Coolidge in that realm to know how ridiculous that idea is) when I say this, but I can’t come up with a single president who didn’t take the job seriously.   Each president to date has put his own stamp on the position (and they have all been men so far, so “his” is the appropriate modifier at least for now) and it has changed dramatically since George Washington first took on the role.  But even the most bad-ass among our presidents (Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt being top among them) were up for the job all the same.   

So there you have it: in my opinion, in all of American history, Donald Trump is the least deserving of all candidates who had a legitimate shot at the presidency.  Is this what the greater democratization of the process by which each party chooses its candidates has wrought?