Religious freedom

Republican strategist, Ana Navarro, argues that religious freedom and the legality of same-sex marriage are compatible. She’s quick to compare her enlightened views to those of Democrats, an interesting strategy given the state of her party:

Unlike Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and so many other Americans, I didn’t evolve on the issue. I don’t remember a time in my life when I thought gay people were entitled to fewer rights than I was. I don’t think same-sex marriage is a threat to the institution. […]

I never saw a conflict between conservative values of less government intrusion and personal freedom and supporting marriage equality. There is no freedom more personal than deciding who to commit your life to. Government shouldn’t mandate whom we choose to love.

Of course, her views are not so strong to keep her from identifying with a backwards political party. Nor are they strong enough to survive religious claims:

The religious freedom battle is just beginning. There are decent people of good faith, people who are not bigots who have deeply held religious views against same-sex marriage. They legitimately feel their religious freedoms are at risk.

Some of these people are also my friends and relatives. My 74-year-old Nicaraguan Catholic father cannot get himself to accept same-sex marriage. God knows, I’ve tried.

I know my dad. It is not in his nature to discriminate against anybody — well, maybe with the exception of communists. My dad cannot get his arms around the idea of two men walking down the aisle. His views are shaped by his culture and guided by his religion.

I’m sad to say that it is in her father’s “nature to discriminate”, because he in fact discriminates. And that prejudiced people are, actually, bigots. Of course, one can always modify the language to suit their inclinations.

In a similarly Orwellian parlance, she also suggests that supporting civil rights should also entail supporting the rights of people to infringe on said rights when it’s convenient:

It is time for everyone to remember that tolerance is a two-way street. We must be respectful of people’s rights — that includes the right to marry who you choose, and also the right to practice the religion that you choose. These two rights can co-exist. […]

Our society is so politicized and polarized, reaching agreement can be hard to imagine. I urge both sides of this issue to take a deep breath and reflect on how we can live and respect each other’s freedoms, rights and beliefs.

Navarro suggests she’s among the enlightened fringe of her party, which is only true if one were to consider the likes of Ted Cruz or Bobby Jindal to represent mainstream Republican opinion (which I happen to believe is untrue). Rather, she more or less represents the so-called moderate Republican view: It’s clear the gays are running the show now, so let’s not discriminate against them overtly, but rather frame such discrimination as a religious prerogative, thereby painting those who support civil rights as discriminating against religion. It’s kind of pathological. Personally, I’d prefer an honest bigot over a slimy and deceitful one any day.

As for the argument itself, I have no reason to believe that same-sex marriage and religious freedom are either compatible or incompatible. That is, “religious freedom” is an incoherent notion that requires further explanation. The reason for this is simple. The notion of “religion” is poorly defined. If I were to start a cult in which my followers adhered to the principle that bashing people’s kneecaps was a sign of respect that had to be exercised fortnightly, would performing this act constitute an exercise of “religious freedom”?

What if my religion mandated the regular consumption of children? Embezzlement? Insurrection? Speed limit denialism?

It seems to me that there is no principled way by which one can distinguish such a hypothetical religion from whatever religion that Navarro is referring to. In each case, the religion plainly conflicts with law — and if we’re not all to be ruled by fringe beliefs, then this is unacceptable.

On the other hand, exercising religious freedom is compatible with civil rights, if one’s religion doesn’t provide for infringing upon said rights. Accordingly, “religious freedom” cannot be understood as absolute — but contingent upon not causing harm to others, or otherwise breaking the law, which is to be expected so long as joining some club shouldn’t give one carte blanche.

Those who are worried about their religious freedom might do well to reconsider their views on freedom generally, gaining some appreciation of the interaction between one’s personal freedom and the freedom of all those around them. Without a reasonable understanding of this interaction, society itself is surely impossible.

Same-sex marriage is even bigger than same-sex marriage

As the country celebrates today’s Supreme Court ruling, requiring states to permit same-sex marriage, it’s worth reflecting on its consequences. The obvious consequence is that same-sex couples nationwide will be permitted to exercise the same basic right as their peers, and enjoy the privileges and responsibilities of marriage.

But there are indirect consequences of the ruling as well. The ruling judicially legitimized a significant portion of non-traditional relationships and identities, and I believe will pave the road to enacting nationwide anti-discrimination measures for the benefit of such people, and for the moral development of all.

Throughout much of the debate surrounding same-sex marriage, opponents of marriage equality suggested that same-sex marriage would lead to the recognition of polygamy and other consensual, but non-traditional, arrangements. (They also compared it to certain non-consensual arrangements, but let’s set that aside for the moment.) For understandable political reasons, many supporters of same-sex marriage who also support other non-traditional relationships distanced themselves from the claim.

The truth is, I’ve always agreed with conservatives on this count. If for no other reason than that LGBT people are often more understanding and accepting of alternative kinds of relationships and identities. Their moral and emotional maturity in such matters will spread to the population generally, as folks begin to learn that sexual and romantic differences don’t necessarily yield the devil incarnate. If this is a fact to celebrate and not deny — as I believe — then it’s only a matter of time before trans, polyamorous, and other stigmatized people get their time in the sun.

Finally, I believe the ruling will bring a push to re-examine our beliefs about gender. I have always believed that a significant portion of homophobia consists not in the hatred of gay or bisexual people as such, but in the belief that men and women are not supposed to behave or appear in certain ways. The notions that men attracted to men are necessarily weak or unmanly, or that women attracted to women are all just pretending for the sake of male stimulation or social currency, are perhaps more closely connected to our beliefs about gender than homophobia, even if the two are often bedfellows.

Today’s ruling will tend to expand our ideas about our own gender identities and what they could be. And this is a profound thing that, in the longer term, could very well lead to a more gentle and reasonable society — across many different dimensions.

Same-sex marriage is important, but it’s only the beginning. And I think it’s a very good start.

Subsidizing health insurance upheld

@ The Supreme Court upheld a key provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) today — namely, the ability for the government to subsidize health insurance for individuals. In so doing, the Court forced Republicans opposed to such subsidization to find an alternative means to deny health insurance to some five million people, and consequently ensure the death of many. If the Democrats have any courage, they’ll drive home this point — which is polemical, scary, and simply true.

Of course, I’d prefer that we make health insurance companies irrelevant, and institute actual universal health care. However, it’s an obscenity to attempt to gut an imperfect bill, thus removing the lifeline of millions of Americans.

Selling the Confederate flag

A couple days ago, I shared a link regarding the present scandal involving the Confederate flag. In it, the author encourages us to “actively disrespect the banner that represents a pure form of human evil”, and regard it in much the same way as most of us regard the Nazi swastika. I completely agree with both points.

Unfortunately, several retailers — including eBay and Amazon — have responded by banning the sale of the Confederate flag. The Washington Post shared a list of similarly hateful goods that are still sold, despite this recent ban.

I won’t contest that the retailers are entirely within their rights to ban these goods. This seems obvious to me. However, this doesn’t mean they should. Moreover, I think doing so demonstrates profound contempt for basic principles of the free exchange of ideas. If we’ve learned anything from the Enlightenment, it should be that the free exchange of ideas (and symbols) should not be restricted. They should be fought with other ideas (and symbols).1

Everyone — or at least I believed everyone — is familiar with the line, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”. Forget about fighting to the death; there seems little interest in mounting a defense at all. Again, I appreciate we’re not talking about rights as such, but rather a kind of private censorship. Nevertheless the above quote, often attributed to Voltaire, is illuminating.

Rendering Confederate flags unavailable will not erase racism. We can be assured it won’t even make a dent. On the contrary, it is not unreasonable to expect some backlash, and even some increase in racist sentiment. People don’t like being told what to do. Moreover, we’re a paranoid country. And restricting the use or availability of symbols will be seen as “political correctness gone amok”. Sadly, it’s difficult for me to disagree with the assessment.

Again, removing symbols doesn’t influence sentiment. The concept of “racism” will be known to all, even if the flag goes away. This principle extends to other symbols which are commonly policed, much to the disadvantage of those who actually endure concrete oppression. This doesn’t mean the Confederate flag shouldn’t be removed from government property. On the contrary, it should be removed — just because it’s not what we should represent. But the removal of the flag from government property is rather different from regulating — even privately — the flag’s circulation in the public.

Why do I care? Because while removing the flag will not reduce racist sentiment, it can quite easily make us feel that we’ve done so. Many will look to this action by retailers as a kind of moral progress, while about 1 in 6 black men presently wither in prison. Fully thirty percent can expect to serve time at some point in their lives. Median wealth for black families is about seven percent of white families’. Not seven percent less, seven percent full stop. So much for moral progress.

You want to smash racism? Don’t make it more difficult to purchase racist symbols. Make people uninterested in purchasing them in the first place.

  1. If one disagrees, perhaps they should consider whether The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be removed from Amazon for its historically accurate use of language. Or whether Mein Kampf should be removed. Perhaps we ought to just forget about Hitler and other unpleasantries because contemplating them is painful or makes us sad. Once we’ve forgotten the past, we can be free to make the same errors again.

How to buy a toothbrush

@ On a Chipotle take-out bag, Aziz Ansari writes about the process of purchasing a toothbrush:

Every toothbrush I bought on a hunch has been fine. I’ve never been disappointed in a toothbrush. Why waste my time trying to find the best?  Have you ever run into someone with no teeth and asked, “What happened?” And they replied, “Bought the wrong toothbrush. Should have done more research.” […]

Maybe you just make confident decisions and feel great about them.

I actually really appreciate Chipotle’s practice of printing short essays on their paper bags. We don’t see enough philosophy — formal or not — in today’s culture. I’ve always found the pieces they’ve commissioned to be thoughtful and to have that spark of humor that’s so essential in the essay form.

I can’t say I agree with Ansari’s conclusion — forcing yourself to feel great and confident about your decisions, if that’s what he’s suggesting, seems narcissistic to me — but I’ve never before had strong intuitions when encountered with a take-out bag. And I thank him for that.

Supremely talented and deported

@ William Han spends a few thousand words explaining how “supremely talented” he is, and how unfair it is that he failed to receive U.S. citizenship:

In short, American immigration law hangs a Damocles’s sword over the heads of even the supremely talented among us, turning those heads prematurely white. Never mind the tired, the poor, or the huddled masses. When the rest of the world sends America its best and brightest, America says, “Go away.”

Interesting that he should consider the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses in an after-thought.

Although the immigration process is convoluted and unfair — and I largely agree with Han on this point — it seems to me that those are just the people that deserve citizenship the most. People with few opportunities in their native countries, and who won’t necessarily enjoy a life of luxury in the United States but at least survival.

As for Han, we can be reasonably sure that, despite his setback, he’ll do fairly well in that most primitive of countries, New Zealand. It’s only unfortunate that he couldn’t use his status to help those most especially in need.

Paying authors by the page

@ Amazon will soon be paying authors that offer their books on Kindle Unlimited or in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library based on the number of pages that are actually read, rather than by the number of times their books are borrowed.

As Peter Wayner of the Atlantic notes, the policy may affect the content of the books offered:

For the many authors who publish directly through Amazon, the new model could warp the priorities of writing: A system with per-page payouts is a system that rewards cliffhangers and mysteries across all genres. It rewards anything that keeps people hooked, even if that means putting less of an emphasis on nuance and complexity.

The trouble here is that “cliffhangers and mysteries” are not suitable in every genre. Moreover, there are certain kinds of books — reference materials being an example — that will be doubly affected, as such material isn’t ordinarily to be read in full.

Consider also that non-fiction books that make extensive use of citations and resource materials may also be adversely affected, as readers commonly do not read such material, but for those that do they are often indispensable.

Apart from how books themselves may change, there is also reason to question the fairness of this program. While authors’ income will depend upon the “use” of their “product”, one wouldn’t expect — for example — appliance manufacturers to receive payment according to how often their products are actually used. Part of the reason involves the cost of materials, but it’s troubling to see abstract or intellectual works further devalued over material goods.

It’s also foreseeable that the author who writes more challenging material, and spends more time and energy doing so, will be rewarded less than the author who quickly churns out potboilers, self-help guides, and other work that’s both written and read with relative ease.

Special thanks to Boing Boing.

Just burn the Confederate flag already

@ Joe Lapointe weighs in on the Confederate flag scandal:

South Carolina will never willingly take down the flag; the time has come for opponents to exercise their First Amendment right to free speech and burn the Confederate flag — at the state capitol in South Carolina, in front of the White House, in front of Fox News Channel, or maybe even outside the Grand Ole Opry.

Don’t burn it in a way that can cause harm. Make sure people are not in the vicinity and check the direction of the wind. Keep a fire extinguisher near in case a grass fire accidentally starts. Don’t use too much flammable liquid to start it.

Of course, burning the Confederate flag would be disrespectful. That is exactly the point.

There is no need to respect a symbol that is as evil and vicious to African-Americans as the Nazi swastika flag is to Jews. In fact, it is important to actively disrespect the banner that represents a pure form of human evil.

You want a Honda Fit, you need a Honda Fit

I don’t normally provide companies with free (or paid) advertising, but once in a while, I happen upon a product that — if I am to remain ethical — demands it. The Honda Fit is just such a product.

Last week, I bought a new Honda Fit in order to cart my lazy self around town in comfort and a dash of style. My Jetta was too expensive to maintain — every time I took it to the shop, a thousand dollars was spent — and falling apart in a subtle sort of way. It was functional, but in the four years I owned it, all kinds of pesky little issues were emerging. Switches didn’t properly switch, and lights didn’t properly light. The air conditioner was on the fritz, and all this happened despite the fact that I had regularly taken it into the shop for maintenance.

I wanted something more reliable and efficient, and stumbled upon the Honda Fit. I bought a manual version to make driving the little rapscallion extra fun, and learned to drive stick in just a few days.

The basic model includes everything I could want — steering wheel mounted controls, Bluetooth audio, functioning air conditioning — and it gets forty miles to the gallon. I’m a big fan of its form factor — it feels like a really small SUV — which allows plenty of space for four or five tall-folk like me, and several weeks worth of groceries. The seats also contort in all sorts of strange ways. You can fold the front and back seats completely flat, which is perfect for catching winks during a road trip or hosting orgies. Or you can fold the back seats into the floor of the car, and tote around a grand piano or something. The cargo area is an obscene fifty cubic feet.

Plus the thing is cheap to repair, though Honda-fiends are eager to mention it’s rarely necessary, and love to share how they treat their Hondas like garbage but still manage to rack a couple hundred thousand miles on them with ease. That’s basically what I want — a goofy little utilitarian thing that’ll last a decade or two — and it seems that’s what I’ve got.

Anyway, I think I’ll name it “Moppet”.

Our understanding of human nature

@ Noam Chomsky on our implicit understanding of human nature1:

[A]ny stance that one takes with regard to social issues … assuming that it has any moral basis at all and is not simply based on personal self-interest, is ultimately based on some conception of human nature. That is, if you suggest things should be reformed in this or that fashion and there’s a moral basis for it, you are in effect saying: “Human beings are so constituted that this change is to their benefit. It somehow relates to their essential human needs.”

The underlying concept of human nature is rarely articulated. It’s more or less passive and implicit and nobody thinks about it very much. But if the study of humans were ever to reach the point of a discipline with significant intellectual content (and we’re very far from this), this concept would have to be understood and articulated.

If we search our souls we find that we do have a concept, and it’s probably based on some ideas about the underlying and essential human need for freedom from external arbitrary constraints and controls, a concept of human dignity which would regard it as an infringement of fundamental human rights to be enslaved, owned by others, in my view even to be rented by others, as in capitalist societies, and so on.

  1. From Language and Politics, 2004.

Santorum wears Ray-Bans

@ My already tenuous grip on reality finally relented when I recently ran into Rick Santorum at a sandwich shop in Philadelphia. Wrapped in a loose-fitting suit, decked with an oversized American flag lapel pin, he ordered his submarine sandwich behind a pair of Ray-Bans.

Ray-Bans. What religious conservative wears Ray-Bans? No religious conservative. And so, it was at that time that I became aware that Rick Santorum is actually a hipster, and became certain that politics is simply the process of crafting a persona to satisfy a particular market demographic.

We’re living in Plato’s cave at the moment, but I think we’re ever closer to leaving into the sun.