AMERICAblog News A great nation deserves the truth // One of America's top progressive sites for news and opinion Fri, 27 Mar 2015 14:00:02 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Voter registration deadlines suppressed up to 4 million votes in 2012 Fri, 27 Mar 2015 14:00:02 +0000 New analysis conducted by a team of political scientists, led by Carroll College professor Alex Street, shows that an alarmingly high number of American citizens want to vote, but can’t due to voter registration deadlines.

The study was fairly straightforward: the researchers looked at the number of times people Googled “register to vote,” along with a few other related queries, during the weeks leading up to Election Day in 2012. They then compared those searches to data on when and how many people actually registered to vote, finding that “daily web search volume is closely correlated with the daily number registering, when registration is open.”

They then modeled what registration volume would have been in a counterfactual setting, in which every state extended their voter registration deadline through Election Day, and found that an additional three to four million people would have registered to vote had no deadlines been in effect.

Street, et al’s analysis is a new way of saying what we’ve known for a while: voter registration deadlines, and voter registration requirements to begin with, are much stronger barriers to entry in the voting market than long lines or faulty machines. The Census conducts a postelection survey after every presidential election, and consistently finds that millions of would-be voters want to register and vote, but can’t due to deadlines and other access issues.

The bigger point highlighted by the study is that these citizens don’t identify as non-voters by any stretch of the imagination. They’re actively seeking information as to how to cast their ballot. This flies in the face of prior assumptions about citizens who aren’t registered to vote: that they’re disinterested or lazy, and would not vote even if they were registered.

Vote via Shutterstock

Vote via Shutterstock

Of course, registering to vote isn’t the same thing as actually casting a ballot, so if Street, et al are right and every state moved to Election Day registration, we probably wouldn’t see a full 3-4 million extra votes coming out of those extra 3-4 million registrations. However, if registration requirements were removed altogether, and all of the roughly 33 million eligible, unregistered citizens became registered overnight, that could change quite a bit. Oregon recently became the first state to adopt such a system (while North Dakota never got around to enacting voter registration at all); other states should follow suit.

Voter registration originated in this country as a way to disenfranchise immigrants and poor people in the early 1800s, and was kept around as a way to disenfranchise African-Americans in the early 1900s. If we’re going to continue to be one of the only industrialized democracies in the world that places the burden of voter registration on the citizen instead of the state, we’re going to need a better reason. Especially since it’s having large, material effects on our elections.

Indiana legalizes “straights only” economic discrimination Fri, 27 Mar 2015 12:00:52 +0000 Yesterday, Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed a purportedly anti-discrimination bill into law that legalizes discrimination against LGBT consumers.

Senate Bill 101, also known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, prohibits the government from unnecessarily burdening anyone’s ability to exercise their religious beliefs. Seemingly forgetting that this protection already exists, as established under the First Amendment, the bill can be more accurately described as establishing a “right to discriminate” in Indiana — one in which businesses can refuse service to LGBT customers.

As far as the bill’s religious justifications are concerned, I’m skeptical. Where in the Bible does it say that you shouldn’t let the gays eat cake? If conservatives were really serious about protecting the religious’ right to freely exercise their beliefs, then more of them would be behind California’s “kill the gays” ballot initiative.

Moreover, it isn’t as if religious liberty is under attack in Indiana. When pressed by a conservative radio host as to whether there were any specific cases of religious discrimination that prompted the law, Governor Pence came up empty:

Either way, businesses reserving the right to refuse service to certain groups of people is nothing new. We know how this story goes, and we know how it ends. That religious conservatives are all of a sudden discovering the language of identity politics — seeking to carve out protected status of their own as their cultural hegemony erodes — is only further indication that this battle of the American culture wars is ending, and they’re losing.

Indiana is the 20th state to enact religious freedom discrimination legislation, as many states have sought a consolation prize after losing marriage equality case after marriage equality case in the courts. Indiana faced particular embarrassment last year, when Reagan-appointed Judge Richard Posner issued an ungodly, comprehensive destruction of their argument to uphold their same-sex marriage ban in his majority opinion that overturned it.

And it is already facing further embarrassment in the wake of this new legislation. Major public figures, from NCAA President Mark Emmert to author John Green, have all spoken out against the bill (NCAA basketball’s Final Four and John Green both currently reside in Indianapolis). Salesforce founder Marc Benioff has gone as far as to cancel all company programs that require employees to travel to Indiana. The state’s largest convention, GenCon, has also threatened to move their convention to another state in light of the bill’s passage.

All of this proving, once again, that discrimination is bad business.

Republicans are trying to legally rig elections: Ohio Edition Thu, 26 Mar 2015 16:00:27 +0000 By now, Americans no strangers to the variety of inventive and ill-conceived ways that Republican state legislators have found to build barriers to the ballot box. AMERICAblog readers already know about the attempt to tweak the rules for electoral votes in Michigan and Nebraska, along with poll taxes in North Carolina and voter ID laws in around the country — laws that have altered electoral outcomes in Mississippi and Virginia. But now Ohio Republicans are pushing a new kind of voter suppression – one specifically targeting students in the Buckeye State.

Late last week (and almost by accident), it was discovered that the otherwise routine Transportation and Public Safety Budget (known as House Bill 53) contains a rider that would require anyone registering to vote with a non-Ohio driver’s license to obtain an Ohio license within 30 days or surrender their license altogether. The fees for such a change are upwards of $100 dollars, including the time and effort required to go through the process.

Even with an imminent House vote that would send the bill to the Governor’s desk, plenty of technical questions remain about the measure’s effect if for no other reason than that it was included so late in the process that there was hardly time for review. Representative Kathleen Clyde (D), who has been vocal in her dissent for this measure, told ThinkProgress that there was barely time for “vetting or public comment.” The bill’s passage early on with bipartisan support reflects a lack of knowledge about the full ramifications of the amendment.

While this would affect a variety of groups in Ohio, including retirees with out of state licenses and young émigrés saving money by letting their current registration expire, the group most clearly affected is out-of-state college students. The $100+ registration fee would effectively create a poll tax for more than 100,000 students whose right to vote from their college address has been upheld since Symm v. United States in 1979.

(Republican) defenders of the requirement would point out that students can still vote absentee to the state where they have their current license, but that’s irrelevant: Enrollment in a 4-year institution constitutes a vested interest in voting in the states they study and work in. In other words, students have a right to vote. Period. For free and on campus, if they so choose.

Furthermore, an innocuous Transportation Bill is an unexpected vehicle for voter suppression, especially when Republicans haven’t exactly tried to hide it in other states. Could this really be, as Ohio House Republicans are suggesting, just about residency requirements? More likely, they were hoping no one would notice.

The Republicans can surely see the electoral upside. President Obama won Ohio by little more than 100,000 votes in 2012, and 18-29 year-olds nationally favored Democrats by a 23-point margin. If this measure sticks, and 100,000 votes are taken out of Ohio in 2016, it’s certainly going to hit Democrats harder than Republicans. The affected students’ electoral preferences skew Democratic, and attempts to keep them from the ballot box are transparently political.

The timing is certainly convenient: the budget is typically a two-year bill, meaning that absent any review or legal challenge to the provision buried in this one, it would stick around until 2017 – right after the general election. Governor John Kasich’s shellacking of Ed Fitzgerald this past year has bolstered his credentials for a 2016 run for the White House (for what it’s worth, he’s on an east coast tour right now), and this measure will make it easier for any Republican nominee to secure the important swing state.

House Bill 53 hasn’t stopped, and shows no signs of slowing. In a state that’s already faced reductions in early voting hours and restrictions for minor party participation, this is yet another ham-handed attempt to legally rig elections in Republicans’ favor.

Anti-herpes drug to treat HIV? Thu, 26 Mar 2015 14:00:26 +0000 Research is continuing to discover new drugs to help in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The research isn’t just for drugs; it’s also for vaccines and some other techniques to try to prevent the transmission of and, finally, cure AIDS.

Valacyclovir is a drug primarily used to treat people infected with Herpes Simplex virus (HSV). It has also been used to treat patients with chickenpox, patients infected with Epstein-Barr virus and to prevent cytomegalovirus infections. It’s been available to use for quite some time and often works well to treat people with HSV infections like genital herpes, herpes labialis (cold sores) or shingles (caused by another herpesvirus, Herpes zoster) and some other viral diseases.

When this medication is given, it gets taken up by herpes-infected cells and metabolized; it gets changed a bit and becomes a powerful drug. Once metabolized, it blocks the infecting Herpes virus from replicating its DNA, keeping it from producing more of the virus. In the past, it’s been noted that some HIV and HSV co-infected patients, when placed on valacyclovir (along with being maintained on their regular doses of antiretroviral medications for HIV) experience a further drop in their HIV viral loads (as well as in their HSV viral loads) beyond what their antiviral cocktail had previously produced.

It was thought that this was a side effect of treatment for HSV. That perhaps the immune system cells that HIV infects were less likely to become infected. Or, perhaps, there were fewer of them around to become infected. All thought to be a kind of side effect of the valacyclovir.

Researchers from an arm of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) decided to look more closely at this phenomenon. They wanted to see if valacyclovir could decrease HIV in patients who weren’t infected with HSV. The NIH researchers recruited other sites to help carry out the study, including Emory, Case Western and the Civic Association for Health and Education in Peru.

The research started off as an ex vivo experiment. They added valacyclovir to cultured cells that were infected with HIV but not infected with HSV. They saw that valacyclovir suppressed HIV production in the cells. Their next step was to see if they could get similar results in humans.

Researchers enrolled eighteen volunteers who were infected with HIV but not HSV. In the first part of the experiment, half of the volunteers were given valacyclovir, one pill twice a day. The other group got a placebo twice a day. At the midpoint of the experiment, the groups were switched so that the placebo group started getting valacyclovir and the (former) valacyclovir group got placebo for the remainder of the trial. HIV viral loads were measured in all participants at baseline (before starting the study), while on placebo and while on valacyclovir. The data showed that when patients were on valacyclovir, their HIV viral loads dropped. When they were on placebo, their HIV viral loads increased. So valacyclovir seemed to be responsible for a drop in viral load in the patients.

Vaccine, via Pixabay

Vaccine, via Pixabay

This study had a very small number of patients, and it will need to be repeated with more volunteers, but it would be exciting if similar results were obtained in the larger group for a few reasons:

First off, valacyclovir has been around for a while. It’s been well-studied, most of its side effects are known and doctors are familiar with using it. Sometimes when a brand new drug is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, unexpected side effects appear sometime after the drug is licensed. As valacyclovir is is battle-tested, that’s unlikely to happen here.

Second, compared to other HIV medications, valacyclovir is cheap. In the US, the price normally runs around $45 for a one month supply. Most anti-HIV drugs are much more expensive: Kaletra, a protease inhibitor, costs about $850 for a one month supply. Raltegravir, and integrate strand inhibitor, is about $1300/month. Viread, an NRTI, is about $1,000/month. If its success can be replicated, this means that valacyclovir would be a real bargain.

Third, some strains of HIV have become resistant to certain antiretroviral medications. Valacyclovir could be placed into the armamentarium of antiretroviral drugs and could be added if a specific patient develops a resistance to a different drug.

Using an antiviral drug that wasn’t designed to treat HIV may encourage researchers to continue to think outside the box when looking for additional HIV meds. And the thinking outside the box might spread to other researchers like those working on vaccines and other treatments.

So valacyclovir looks like it might be a promising candidate to treat HIV in the near future, depending on how well the larger study turns out. With good results, this might be available in a few years.

In defense of bloody primaries Thu, 26 Mar 2015 12:00:22 +0000 As Hillary Clinton begins to run into friction in her next attempt to win the presidency, Democrats are — to differing degrees — losing enthusiasm for the headlining race of 2016. At the same time, GOP candidates are facing any number of scandals-of-the-day, but Republican enthusiasm is as boisterous as ever. Why?

It’s quite simple: Democrats have one serious contender for the presidency; Republicans have around a dozen possibilities. When a Republican candidate hits a snag, like Christie’s bridge-related problems, support shifts to other candidates like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. On the left, though, there is no other plausible candidate to which to shift support, so it simply evaporates, and Democrats everywhere end up a little less enthusiastic, boding ill for the party’s fortunes next November. While a large primary runs the risk of bloodying at least one candidate, the lack of such a primary offers little protection from cross-party attacks, and limits media attention necessary to develop an effective campaign narrative.

If Democrats want a vibrant primary, there are other possibilities besides Hillary for the Democratic nomination, but they face a significant gap in name recognition. The average Democrat outside the Beltway has no idea who Martin O’Malley or Jim Webb are, and if they want to mount a viable challenge to Hillary, each needs to bridge that gap quickly. Bernie Sanders, should he run, faces the same issue, plus that of how to exchange his independent mantle for a Democratic one.

Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden are better-known but less-likely candidates. Warren fervently denies that she is running, despite Democratic activists’ efforts to drag her into the race. Biden could easily mount a campaign, but makes no appearance of doing so, most likely due to his already-long list of minor foibles and gaffes with which he could be tarred, to say nothing of his age.

It appears, then, that Hillary will inevitably win the Democratic nomination. Looking beyond 2016, though, how can Democrats avoid the same weak primary predicament and deepen the bench?

Republican primary, via Creative Commons

Republican primary, via Creative Commons

A larger primary requires a larger number of experienced politicians with ambition. At the moment, the Democratic talent pipeline could at best be described as abysmally sluggish. Congressional leadership has changed shockingly little since 2008, so existing talent is not gaining new experience.

The exception is jumps from the House to the Senate, which often comes at the cost of the loss of those who lose primaries from the system altogether, as Nancy Pelosi recently bemoaned about the upcoming Senate race in Maryland. If the Democratic leadership refrains from intervening, similarly vibrant primaries are likely in Senate races in Illinois and California. However, with Harry Reid’s endorsement of Rep. Chris Van Hollen for Maryland Senate, the intervention has already begun. In Illinois, Senator Dick Durbin is likely to play kingmaker among Reps. Tammy Duckworth, Cheri Bustos and Bill Foster. Democrats in DC are already endorsing Attorney General Kamala Harris in the California race despite a wealth of possible contenders. Ultimately, it is unlikely that voters will get any significant say in these races at all.

Republican leadership, on the other hand, is loath to intervene in primaries due to the risk of slighting conservative activists, thereby inviting their own primary challenges from the right. While self-interested, this policy keeps the GOP talent pipeline moving better than the Democratic one. For instance, Eric Cantor loses a primary to Dave Brat, Kevin McCarthy moves up to Majority Leader, Steve Scalise moves up to Majority Whip and Bill Flores becomes chair of the Republican Study Committee.

Consequently, the Republican caucus is decidedly more youthful than the Democratic one:

histogram of Congress's age by party and house

Age of Members of Congress by party, as of March 2015.

Despite the loss of Aaron Schock, there are still far more Republicans in Congress young enough to develop the experience necessary to eventually run for president. Compounded by the comparatively smaller number of Democrats in Congress at the moment, the left can make no such claim. For instance, Democrats have no talent analogous to Paul Ryan, who at 45 has already run for Vice President and recently ascended to the chairmanship of the Budget Committee for Ways and Means, the most coveted of committee assignments in the House.

If Democratic leadership wishes to develop such talent, it needs to shift the party machine into low gear until primaries are over. Such restraint is difficult when cable news has been covering the 2016 election since the 2012 one, but is utterly necessary. Campaigns are fully capable of making themselves heard without any legs-up from the party. Ultimately, yes, good politicians will lose their jobs, but they will go on to new ones, and new talent will be minted.

Perhaps more importantly, the public will once again have a say in the future of the party as candidates are forced to ask voters for support instead of Beltway power-broker politicians.

The 2016 will be a particularly important one for Democrats. As a presidential election year, Democratic turnout will be better, offering the party a chance to take back the Senate, and at least close the gap in the House. State legislators will be elected who will have a say in the 2020 US House redistricting that will determine the balance of power for the next decade.

With so much at stake, the Democratic party badly needs the more freely-flowing market labor economy that primaries produce. A planned economy did not work well for the USSR, and it is not working well for the Democratic Party, either.

David Brooks is a Stalinist Wed, 25 Mar 2015 12:00:57 +0000 Like any other week, the opinion pages of the New York Times two weeks ago brought us another rip-roaring David Brooks piece, wherein he pontificates about moral fibers and “the Cost of Relativism.” If Americans would just get back to enforcing social norms and usher in a “moral revival,” Brooks suggests, somehow we would be better off in unstated ways. Nothing out of the ordinary.

What made that week special, however, was Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig of the New Republic’s rebuttal to Brooks, in which she tore apart Brooks’ unstated assumption that “the baseline moral values of poor people… differ… from those of the rich.” It is a pleasure to read.

// //


However, I must admit, I have to agree with David Brooks that things like values, norms and dispositions differ among social classes.

To explain, I’ll have to refer you to a colleague of Robert Putnam’s (Brooks’ column was a sort of commentary on Putnam’s new book for an audience that will never read it), one from across the Atlantic. Like Putnam, Pierre Bourdieu was interested in inequality, and specifically how inequality manifests itself in things like taste, mannerisms and even social norms.

Both were social scientists who put forward highly influential theories of social capital. Where Putnam surveyed people about things like how often they eat dinner together, one of Bourdieu’s most famous studies examined how they respond to different kinds of artwork or what they like to eat.

The above clip illustrates quite succinctly one of his key findings: that taste is as much about drawing boundaries and displaying our class positions as it is about personal preference, if not more so. Cultural capital, the propensity to have taste and lord it over others, as Diane Keaton does in the clip, is just one of several forms of symbolic capital — such as social capital and educational capital — that we store and expend not unlike concrete, monetary-economic capital.

Class divisions have a very real impact on our perceptions, the way we express them and even our dispositions, values and lifestyles – this much I agree with David Brooks on. But I must also insist that it is David Brooks’ dominant class position that affords him his smug sense of moral superiority.

Those of us with experience in the classroom know, as the above clip illustrates, how class inequalities play out in our schools. But the problem here isn’t “culture;” it’s inequality. One of the key prerequisites to invest in symbolic capital like cultural capital (i.e., to gain an appreciation for abstract expressionism) is leisure, something in short supply across working America. And when we have leisure time, we tend to use it differently anyway. Building cultural capital (going to the museum) sounds more enticing if you have social capital (are friends with) with someone who has cultural capital (likes museums), and so on and so forth. 

At any rate, what we’re missing from this endless circular discussion about the primacy of culture over class or class over culture is how Stalinist it is to suggest that the answer to all our problems is a healthy dose of moral absolutism.

Nobody wanted a revival of moral standards more than Stalin. Under Stalin the U.S.S.R. banned abortion, made divorces more difficult to acquire and subsidized the family. His purges were as much culture war as they were a declaration of class war from on high. The Bolsheviks imposed a set of “ideals and standards” for the people to repair to, and the people were encouraged or coerced to report any of their friends and neighbors who did not meet the proletarian ideal. Everyone ended up reporting everyone else, and tons of people died. And just to be sure, the Stalinist regime went out of its way to make sure non-collectivized peasant workers starved because their ability to subsist independent of the State became cause for paranoia.

This was after World War One and a Civil War had already decimated the population, and World War Two left even more dead in its wake.

“As a result of all this violence,” as Georgi Derluguian’s mind-bending account of the rise and fall of the Soviet system describes, “no landowners or aristocrats, no capitalists or petty bourgeoisie, no autonomous intelligentsia or liberal professionals remained… the social hierarchy was drastically reduced to a semi-closed caste of cadre bureaucrats and a newly created mass who could be described as proletarian in the most fundamental sense: a social class whose livelihood was rigidly tied to wage employment.” At last a classless society – forged by the survival of the fittest and, finally, pure, moral standards. (“From the late 1950’s the Soviet Union experienced a tremendous expansion in the practice of high culture,” Derluguian notes). That’s what David Brooks wants. That’s what Vladimir Putin wants.

I always knew David Brooks was a Trojan horse for the Communists seeking to undermine American freedom, I just never knew the National Review would be in such a rush to defend him.

New Jersey privatizes its water in the worst way possible Tue, 24 Mar 2015 13:30:41 +0000 Last month, Chris Christie sold off New Jersey’s public water supply to a bunch of corporations.

The Water Infrastructure Protection Act (WIPA), approved on February 5th, allows municipalities to sell their water facilities to private companies without public referendum. As part of Christie’s privatization task force agenda, WIPA aims to balance Jersey’s current budget crisis, while also fixing the state’s water facilities that ail from “emergent conditions,” or what the bill calls “serious risks to the integrity of drinking water and the environment.” The Protection Act has alarmed New Jersey communities and watchdog groups, however, who claim, as activist Jim Walsh has said, the bill allows “multinational corporations to profit off increased water rates with virtually no recourse for New Jersey residents.’’

Though flatly ignored by the national media, WIPA is a painfully important piece of legislation that comes at a pivotal juncture in the national and global conversation about how exactly we should “define” water. It also opens up bigger questions about private institutions and their role in shaping the public sphere — the first of which being, can we really trust corporations to do something that government has been doing for a hundred years?

The people of New Jersey certainly seem to be suspect. Chief among the outraged over WIPA’s passage are public interest groups like Jersey’s Division of Rate Counsel (DRC), which has lambasted the bill. Stefanie Brand, the Counsel’s Director, expressed concerns in a statement to the NJ legislature, on Dec. 11th, saying she feared that:

  1. WIPA will raise the public’s rates. A lot: Because the bill strips authority from the Board of Public Utilities (BPU), the organization that has traditionally regulated rates in NJ, ratepayers run the risk of seeing drastic inflation. For Jersey’s low-income communities, this is a frightening prospect.
  2. WIPA will diminish public control: Not only does the new bill strike public referendum, but it delivers the people’s water into the hands of an organization with few of the protections currently offered by the BPU. Consumer protection agencies like the DRC — groups that give consumers a “voice in setting energy, water and telecommunications policy” — may have little influence under the new bill. As a result, the public will have less to do with the management of their own water.
  3. Socialized costs for privatized gains: Tradition holds that when water facilities are privatized, shareholders usually shoulder “acquisition-related costs,” as they are the ones who stand to profit most from the deal. However, under the new bill, facility construction and other acquisition costs will be “recoverable in rates” — meaning ratepayers will subsidize the operation.

Concerns surrounding WIPA fit into a larger argument occurring nationally about the dangers of water privatization. In “The New Economy of Water,” a comprehensive report released by The Pacific Institute, analysts posited a number of risks to democratic and political institutions implicit in privatization. Many of these concerns are identical to those expressed by Brand and the DRC. Among the concerns, the report warns that:

  • Privatization can worsen economic inequality
  • Privatization may circumvent public participation, public ownership, and contract monitoring
  • Privatization of water systems may be irreversible

An analysis done by watchdog non-profit Food and Water Watch seems to support fears of worsening economic iniquities. The report found that on average, where privatization had already occurred in Jersey, households paid 64 percent more for their water. In other states, cases are similar. In Felton, CA, for instance, American Water (AW) bought up state facilities, after which RWE — its parent corporation — proposed raising rates on payers by 78%. In Urbana, Illinois, too, AW bought the public’s water, then quickly proposed a 60% increase in rates. Not exactly a better deal for middle-class ratepayers.

Fears of “irreversibility” also hold some credibility. For state officials in desperate municipalities, water facility sales may appear a short-term financial solution to budgetary ailments. However, these solutions often come with a long-term price tag: water contracts can last decades (WIPA, for instance, allows companies to own public facilities for up to 40 years) — making protracted and expensive lawsuits the only viable means of public reclamation.

In the past, communities have waged legal battles with their legislatures when privatization deals did not work out to their advantage. Yet WIPA’s waving of public referendum effectively negates that ability.

These debates over the dangers of water privatization come at a time when the international community is also discussing how to head off the global water shortage. Inefficient state facilities have forced scientists and politicians to rethink the means by which water can be stored and distributed. A growing number of analysts have argued that the private model is a more effective means of preserving dwindling water supplies. Smelling the aroma of fresh greenbacks, a small coalition of international corporations — accompanied by The World Bank — are pushing for a global water privatization initiative.

The Polaris Institute reports that:

There are ten major corporate players now delivering fresh water services for profit. Between them, the three biggest — Suez and Vivendi [recently renamed Veolia Environment] of France and RWE-AG of Germany — deliver water and wastewater services to almost 300 million customers in over 100 countries, and are in a race, along with the others such as Bouygues SAUR, Thames Water (owned by RWE) and Bechtel-United Utilities, to expand to every corner of the globe. Their growth is exponential; a decade ago, they serviced around 51 million people in just 12 countries. And, although less than 10 percent of the world’s water systems are currently under private control, at the rate they are expanding, the top three alone will control over 70 percent of the water systems in Europe and North America in a decade.

Yet in many third world countries where water supplies have already been privatized, communities have encountered the same problems that plague U.S. towns like Felton and Urbana. Rates skyrocket, which drives inequality up. In some cases, health concerns have arisen, as well. Management and efficiency, too –the supposed areas in which private companies are supposed to outperform state governments — are spotty. Al Jazeera America reported that there was a “34% failure rate for all private water and sewerage contracts entered into [globally] between 2000 and 2010.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement for corporate competency.

Global water, via Shutterstock

Global water, via Shutterstock

Tough decisions are ahead. The debate over water privatization goes beyond issues of safety, efficiency and profit, to the question of what exactly an American citizen is entitled to. Analyst Karen J. Bakker has said that while water has historically been considered a “public good,” a universal right, and a “necessary precondition for participation in public life,” privatization makes it: “no longer a public good…but a tradable good,” subject to the fluctuations of the market.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the WIPA is the extent to which it fits into the larger privatization trend in the U.S., one in which middle-class rights are being declared as tradable goods. It’s a process that, in general, makes things less affordable to the average family: after school programs, universal child care and higher education — once state-subsidized programs — have become costly, privatized industries. Worker benefits such as retirement plans and pensions have evaporated. If the privatization enthusiasts had their way, we’d also be doing without the federal minimum wage and the weekend. In the private sector’s consumption of the public sector, boundaries between “natural rights” and “commodities” have dissolved and aspects of life that have traditionally been considered universal privileges have instead become privileges of wealth.

And now they’re coming for our water. Yikes.

Borders between government and big business are dissolving. Legislation like WIPA — fast-tracked and vetted of referendum as it was — is nothing more and nothing less than governments selling their people out to corporations. The communities both pay for the operation and forfeit their right to manage their own resources.

Doubts naturally persist over the ability of private entities to take on public responsibilities when their priorities remain profits, not people. In situations where government oversight has not sufficiently been included, the privatization of public institutions has lead not only to rising levels of inequality and circumvention of democratic process, but to severe abuses — with examples running the gamut from the current crisis over for-profit colleges like Corinthian, to the horrors of prison privatization, to Blackwater and the Nisour Square massacre.

The demand for water is perfectly inelastic: Regardless of price, people need to drink. This being the case, water would seem to be a product least-likely to be handled well by the private sector. Given the disastrous results in the places where it’s been tried, there’s no reason to be anything but skeptical at least and outraged at best over New Jersey’s plan to privatize their water supply.

Steve King goysplains how anti-Semitic Jewish Democrats are Mon, 23 Mar 2015 12:00:39 +0000 [UPDATE: The original title of this post referred to Steve King’s comments as “Jewsplaining.” As King is not Jewish, “goysplaining” is more accurate. The title has been updated to reflect this.]

On Friday, Iowa Congressschmuck Steve King told Boston Herald Radio that he’s frustrated at how anti-Semitic so many of American Jews are:

Here is what I don’t understand, I don’t understand how Jews in America can be Democrats first and Jewish second and support Israel along the line of just following their President…

…anti-Semitism is a component of this and just plain liberalism is another component. I mean the president wants the world to be, he thinks somehow he can force the world can be the world he myopically believes it is.

In an interview with Buzzfeed on Sunday, King doubled down:

“I think many of them no longer have ties to Israel,” said King. “They are secular, they are Democrats by political affiliation and by their nature they are leftist.”

“Many are leftists first,” he said.

He added, “those who regularly go to synagogue…” support Israel. “That’s not the case with those who align themselves with the political left.”

That’s some pretty epic goysplaining, even for King. In asserting that “real Jews” hold the same racist, nativist, anti-Democratic sentiments toward Palestinians that he holds for immigrants, and that that’s what constitutes “support” for Israel, King exposed how little he, an evangelical Christian, knows about American Jews and American Jewish culture.

As Kaili Joy Gray wrote last year:

Here is one truth upon which many of us could probably more or less agree: Jews do not need to be told how to Jew. The secular ones, the orthodox ones, the “Hey, I go to shul on the High Holidays” ones, the uber-hawkish-like-some-kind-of-white-evangelical ones, the every-other-kind-of-Jew-who-can-Jew ones. We all Jew in our own way. We certainly don’t need advice on how to Jew from evangelical schmucks (that’s Jewspeak for stupid penis)…

As I’ve written before, a lot of Jewish people in America, myself included, place a particular emphasis on the “ish” with respect to their faith. According to a 2013 Pew survey, 23 percent of all Jews and over a third of Millennial Jews don’t believe in God, so King is onto something when he says that some of us are secular. And seven in ten Jews identify as Democrats, so King’s also right when he says that lots of American Jews are liberal.

But American Jews aren’t “Democrats first and Jews second.” As their name implies, they are Americans first and Jews second. When J-Street polled the Jewish electorate just before Election Day in 2014, they found that American Jews’ priorities lined up pretty well with the rest of the country. Only eight percent picked Israel as their top issue. The top three? Economy, healthcare and the social safety net. Go figure.

King complains about these facts as if they’re a problem, throwing around the words “secular” and “liberalism” as if secular, liberal Jews are doing Judaism wrong. They aren’t. With respect to the way each views hierarchy and oppression in society, liberalism and Judaism line up really well: If your people spent literally thousands of years as an persecuted minority, you’d be all for a system of government that protected against majoritarian tyrannies. As the Jewish Journal noted when they analyzed the Pew survey:

The poll shows that even among the irreligious, Jewish identity is intertwined with feelings of obligation to society and remembrance of how Jews have been persecuted. Jews worry about the underdogs, who are on the difficult road that they, their parents or grandparents traveled.

That probably has something to do with why Jews were the religious group most likely to say that homosexuality should be accepted in society, with roughly 80 percent support.

And, not for nothing, Israel has (excellent) socialized healthcare and (heavily regulated) taxpayer-funded abortions.

But it doesn’t matter what Jews actually believe, because Steve King’s stance on Israel has very little to do with Jews. Instead, it has everything to do with evangelical Christians’ apocalyptic hope that if only we can get all of the Arabs out and all of the Jews in, then Jesus will come back and teleport him to heaven.

Of course, all of the Jews get left behind in this story, which doesn’t sound all that much like “support” to me.

Regardless, this explains why evangelical Christians are way more “supportive” of Israel than American Jews. They are twice as likely to say that Israel was given to the Jews by God, and while six in ten Jews believe that a two-state solution is possible, 50 percent of evangelical Christians do not. This being the case, Steve King’s frustrations over where Jews come down on Israel says less about Jews and more about him.

Seemingly forgotten in all of this is America’s official position in favor of a two-state solution, a position that recently-reelected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flipped the bird to during the overtly racist tail end of his campaign. In guaranteeing that there would be no Palestinian state so long as he was in office — a statement that he’s tried to Etch-A-Sketch away since winning — Netanyahu has done massive damage to the peace process, as no one has any reason to take him seriously at the negotiating table.

King’s defense of Netanyahu’s nativism doesn’t hold sway with the majority of American Jews who support a two-state solution; it just proves that he’s an evangelical Christian first and an American second.

It also makes him a schmuck.

Let’s slow down this race, together: Starbucks and a bad hashtag Fri, 20 Mar 2015 16:00:30 +0000 Careful: The beverage you are about to enjoy is an extremely hot topic.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz had the well-intentioned but hazardously naive idea a few months ago to encourage discussion of race in America by having Starbucks baristas physically hashtag their customers’ drinks with #RaceTogether. Asking people what they think about race relations before they’ve had their coffee? What could possibly go wrong? The campaign rolled out this week and immediately fell flatter than a half-milk, half-espresso order.

While the hashtag sparked a scalding wave of rage and controversy, the thought that originated the campaign was commendable. As everyone’s favorite socially responsible CEO explained in an internal email, he felt that the moral weight that accompanied leading a business with 182,000 employees meant that he could not stand by and say nothing. He urged others to join him in a candid, respectful dialogue, rather than “continue to come to work every day aware of the difficult and painful experiences facing our nation, and not acknowledge them”

// //


The idea for promoting a grassroots discussion came from a cathartic internal meeting at the Starbucks Support Center in Seattle back in December. In response to the Berkeley protests, he called an impromptu open forum — a safe space where internal team members were urged to speak and listen from the heart, resulting in an uncomfortable, yet enlightening, learning experience for all. For this, I applaud Schultz for facilitating a constructive and powerful moment of conversation.

However, one can imagine that the leadership, teambuilding and communication talents present at Starbucks HQ are not as concentrated in every staff of each #RaceTogether cafe location nationwide. Furthermore, although Starbucks may be a third space — there is nothing that makes it a “safe” space to be vulnerable and trusting with strangers who are driven by part-time employment, commuting and caffeine habits. Also, putting employees on the receiving end of possible backlash is irresponsible and poorly thought out.

The Internet has united in gleefully trashing the campaign.  Starbucks’s SVP of Communications deleted his Twitter, which fueled more gleeful hate, despite his fair explanation that he was taking a temporary Twitter break because he felt “personally attacked…and the tweets represented a distraction from the respectful conversation we are trying to start around Race Together.”

Many are rolling their eyes at the fact that a huge corporation dared to be anything more than a huge corporation. Others see it as an inappropriate marketing ploy.

I disagree. I believe big companies can, and should, make a difference where they are able, and that employees should feel supported in expressing opinions, even on the job. Schultz is correct when he writes that, “doing what is right for society and doing what is right for business cannot be mutually exclusive endeavors.”

This intersection of social good and business does come across as particularly Starbucksy. And by that I mean this: Walk into any Starbucks location, and you’ll probably be faced with beautiful, ethnographic photos of farmers in fields half a world away, or black and white snaps from around that particular cafe’s city. The bagged beans you pick up likely have an evocative story of their origin, making you feel just that much more mindful of your consumer decisions. Sense of place and localization has long been a cherished and very visible part of what makes Starbucks so successful and charismatic. By engaging with race relations in certain cities and in this country right now, Starbucks means to bring that same feeling of connectedness and awareness to a crisis that really does merit everyone’s brainpower in addressing and solving.

However, the scalability is completely off on this particular project. What was a positive experience for a room of people in Seattle might be an upsetting, destructive, even downright dangerous one for Starbucks employees in, say, Charlottesville, Virginia.

Starbucks’ leadership has rightly been criticized for providing little to no training in racial dialogue for its employees, who can opt in to scribbling on people’s drinks but in general aren’t sure what to say after that. Do you feel like sharing a personal experience with racism? Do you know about how our society perpetuates slavery? Do you want room in your cup for cream?


Different colors of coffee, via Azmega

Here in sunny SoCal, my Starbucks barista winced and gestured to a full roll of “RaceTogether” stickers, stuffed out of sight behind the register. “We had practically no training,” he told me. “It was just the managers, who sat in on a half-hour conference call.” Still, it’s been good for raising awareness, and responses have been fairly civil, if disinterested — “at least around here,” he says, pointedly nodding to the street outside featuring a Lululemon, a Tiffany’s and an Urban Outfitters. “But, west coast, it’s not as big a thing… I imagine you get more people who care as you go east.”

In a former job, I led high school study abroad programs to South Korea’s 38th parallel as part of a four-week training on non-violent communication, critical thinking and cross-cultural learning. My students considered grand themes like “peace” for the first time beyond the occasion of school assemblies and themed-history-month projects and, by the end of the program, were beginning to implement vocabulary and strategies for healthy, constructive debate.

While amazingly effective, this kind of education isn’t included in the Common Core. Most high school students, even college students, won’t find ready chances to practice the sort of communication that Schultz asks of us.

What struck home for me in Schultz’s letter was the mission he underlined in conclusion, sounding so much like the words I’ve told my students: “Today, we choose to act in a way that is authentic to us, by nurturing a sense of community and bringing people together through the lens of humanity. At this trying time, it is important for all of us to be open and to be present.”

Authentic. Community. Humanity. Open and present. Values that we all need to learn, but realistically, won’t come from our five-minute detour through the coffee line.

So the hashtag was embarrassing, and the campaign was a flop. There’s still no need to boycott the chain or dismiss it as a marketing fail. If we want our faceless corporations to remain faceless, then we should probably stop demanding a more human side from them. However, if we want our big companies to be aware of their impact and attempt some change, we should expect human mistakes along the way as well.

Ultimately, Schultz’s idea had a lot of merit. Instead of uniting in deriding it, we should take the invitation in its intended spirit. America might not have liked that Starbucks assigned them a discussion topic, but that doesn’t mean that the discussion is any less urgent or important to have.

It’s time to make college free Fri, 20 Mar 2015 14:00:21 +0000 Earlier this year, President Obama announced a plan to guarantee tuition for any student who wanted to attend community college. The federal government would cover 75 percent of the cost of tuition, and states would cover the remaining 25 percent.

He didn’t go nearly far enough.

It’s time to make college education free. Not just community college, all college. And if the states don’t want to pitch in to help out, the federal government should cover the full cost. Here’s why:

We’ve tried it before, and it’s worked.

America built itself into the superpower it is today by giving itself a free education. At the end of World War II, sixteen million Americans — an eighth of our total population — returned home to be greeted by the GI Bill. Signed into law by FDR, this bill guaranteed funding for the higher education of all veterans who were accepted into college, and led to eight million Americans earning college degrees.

According to historian Ed Humes, those eight million produced “fourteen Nobel prize winners, three Supreme Court Justices, three Presidents, a dozen Senators, and two dozen Pulitzer prize winners.” It expanded the higher education system in America to one of the best in the world, and was a major influence in the economic boom between 1950 and 1980.

Aided by the GI Bill, 18-24 year-old college enrollment in America grew from 15% in 1940 to 40% in 1960. At the same time, the Cold War, and more specifically the Space Race, spurred unprecedented advances in STEM education and research, marked by President Eisenhower’s passage of the National Defense Education Act, which funded education at all levels and provided scholarships for STEM fields in an attempt to raise the number of scientists and mathematicians from which we could draw upon for military research.

It was in this educational context that some of our biggest leaps in technological advancements — such as the Internet — were born.

We need it

If ever there were a time to make a stand for a literate, competent and generally educated populace, that time is now. Education is under attack in our country, and it’s time to fight back.

The state of Oklahoma is attempting to mutilate or axe AP US history. Despite courts ruling over and over again that creationism is not a science, that evolution is, and that teaching them side-by-side is unconstitutional, Texas is trying to outprint the rest of the country with textbooks claiming otherwise. The Republican Party wants to destroy the Department of Education altogether. And in spite of an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community, conservative politicians are making their careers by suggesting that it’s OK to equate opinion with fact when it comes to climate change.

These rabidly anti-intellectual stances might have something to do with why, in spite of disproportionately high dollars-per-student spent on primary and secondary education, our achievement rates are falling behind the rest of the world.

College cost, via Shutterstock

College costs, via Shutterstock

And right now, it doesn’t get much better in postsecondary institutions. Colleges raised their tuition by a total of 20 percent between 2007 and 2012 (tacked onto an increase of 1,120 percent increase since 1978), and government funding per student dropped by 27 percent in that same time frame. That’s left graduates across the country struggling under the weight of 1.2 trillion dollars in college debt, with the average student owing about 25 thousand dollars when the leave school — well beyond the difference in entry-level salaries for an average college graduate and a non-college graduate.

So it should come as no surprise that we are currently in the midst of a historically unprecedented decline in college enrollment.

We can afford it, and then some. 

The federal government already spends $69 billion annually in financial aid packages, but a huge chunk of aid goes to private and for-profit universities (for-profit institutions account for 10 percent of our college enrollment and 25 percent of federal aid). If every dollar of federal aid in 2012 had instead been used to cover the all public university tuition, taxpayers would have saved money

Total public university tuition was $62.6 billion in 2012, and federal Pell Grants accounted for $21.8 billion of it, so even if we wanted to keep our financial aid infrastructure, we could have covered the cost of tuition for every public university student in 2012 with about $41 billion extra dollars. That would have added a meager 1.2 percent to that year’s 3.5 trillion dollar budget if we hadn’t cut a single penny elsewhere.

Of course, if public education were free then more students would go, thereby costing us more in the short run. But isn’t that the point? If the GI Bill is any indication, the investments we make in the short term will pay for themselves in the long term.

education protest

Education protest, via Smart7 /

History says that funding higher education will make us a more prosperous and powerful nation, and going all-in on free college could cost us less than we currently spend tiptoeing around the issue with a Pell Grant here and a student loan there.

The only obstacle is politics. Rather than committing to something that runs the risk of Sean Hannity crying “socialist,” our elected officials are wasting 6.4 billion dollars and saddling the generation which makes up America’s future with 1.2 trillion dollars in unnecessary debt.

Not only is the anti-education wing of the Republican Party sabotaging science education and history education for the sake of achieving their political aims, they are stunting the intellectual and financial growth of America’s youth and, through them, the growth of the nation’s economy.

So let’s make college free. For the sake of our country, we have to make a serious reinvestment in ourselves.

Rick Perry’s new adviser has suggested that God isn’t #ReadyForHillary. Technically, he’s right. Fri, 20 Mar 2015 12:00:31 +0000 On Wednesday, Rick Perry’s political action committee, RickPAC, announced that it has hired Jamie Johnson to be its senior director in advance of Perry’s likely presidential run.

Johnson previously served as Rick Santorum’s Iowa coalitions director in 2012, where he was perhaps most notable for an email he had previously written claiming a female president would put children’s lives at risk. As he wrote: “The question then comes, ‘Is it God’s highest desire, that is, his biblically expressed will…to have a woman rule the institutions of the family, the church, and the state?'”

The email became part of what Michelle Bachmann’s campaign construed as an openly misogynistic climate in Iowa religious circles — one of the many, many reasons her campaign crashed and burned.

When the email surfaced, Johnson, who is an ordained minister, walked it back, saying that it did not represent the Santorum campaign. As NBC reported at the time:

“I was sharing my personal reflections with a friend through my private email account -– not the campaign account,” Johnson said. “They were reflections on over 25 years of formal, theological study” based in “classical Christian doctrine.”

So while he didn’t mean to imply that Rick Santorum and Rick Perry aren’t ready for a female president, he did mean to imply that God isn’t. He just didn’t want anyone else to know about it.

That makes sense. You see, while the misogynistic passages of the Bible make for bad politics, they’re still, you know, in there.

From Genesis 2:20-22 — where God waits for Adam to finish naming all of the animals, then knocks him out and surgically removes one of his ribs to make Eve — all the way through to Revelation 19 — where the people rejoice over the fall of the “great prostitute” that is Babylon — the Good Book goes out of its way to place women below men.

Here is a small sample of the New Testament’s greatest sexist hits, all from after Jesus is introduced:

  • Jesus says that divorce is OK if the wife cheats, but is mum on what the rules are if the husband does (Matthew 5:32)
  • Jesus tells his followers that he will reward them for leaving their wives and children (Mark 10:29-30)
  • Every man is holy to the Lord, but again, no word on whether women are (Luke: 2:23)
  • Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to touch him, because touching a woman before he ascends to heaven would make him unclean, or something (John 20:17)
  • The “natural use” for women is sex (Romans 1:27)
  • “the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man” (1 Corinthians 11:3)
  • Wives must submit to their husbands “in every thing” (Ephesians 5:22-24) — this one tripped Michelle Bachmann up in 2012
  • Women should never be allowed to teach, and they definitely shouldn’t have authority over men (1 Timothy 2:12)

If you’re in the business of taking the Bible seriously, you’ve got to parse that language quite a bit before you can get your head around the idea of a female leader of the free world. Johnson claims he has, telling The Guardian yesterday that Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher have proven that women “can do anything men can do and do it well,” but his 25 years of “formal, theological study” beg to differ.

As cliché as it is to quote Christopher Hitchens, the Bible makes it abundantly clear that God didn’t create man in his image; man created God in his. And the men who wrote the Bible had a few ideas about gender relations that are completely unacceptable in a secular liberal democracy.

It’d be one thing if these ideas were kept private, but evangelical politicians such as Rick Perry wouldn’t be where they are today if it weren’t for their insistence on legislating scripture — even if they have no idea what they’re talking about.

This should be a bigger problem for religious candidates.

Rick Perry just went to Iowa to court evangelical conservatives who, through a fair reading of the Bible, have some eyebrow-raising views on, in Jamie Johnson’s words, “the family, the church, and the state.” When asked about Johnson’s email yesterday, Perry dodged. But he and other Republican candidates who head to the state to thump their Bibles and claim to be God-fearing Christians deserve to be continuously pressed on the consequences of theologically-driven politics.

It may be unfair to hold candidates accountable for personal emails their staffers wrote over three years ago, but it’s absolutely fair — and necessary — to hold them accountable for the patriarchal teachings in those Bibles they’re thumping. Perry takes his cues from the Bible for his positions on almost everything, especially when it comes to gender; I’d be interested to know why he wouldn’t refer back to it for his position on women holding elected office.

So, Rick Perry, which is it? When it comes to the idea of a female president, do you stand with Jesus, or do you stand with America?

Fatwas, gay sex tourism and the Indonesian LGBT underground Thu, 19 Mar 2015 14:00:38 +0000 Even before the Indonesian Ulema Council’s (MUI) recent fatwa on “crimes of homosexuality,” the archipelago’s LGBT community has rarely been able to live without prejudice and danger shading their daily lives. Given the history of authoritarian and religious conservatism in the country, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the MUI has declared openly what was an always-present undercurrent of general sentiment before. Also unsurprising is the government’s silence on the issue.

Hatred and fear of the LGBT community runs deeply through many parts of the country, but until a recent anti-homosexuality Sharia law passed in the autonomous region of Aceh, that prejudice has lacked legal backing in Indonesia. While the fatwa is not official, there is still a real concern that the MUI’s sanction may be used to fuel acts of violence against the LGBT community, as well as to strengthen the existing prejudices that keep gay and transgender people from going to school, finding jobs, seeking medical help and being accepted in their communities.

Yet despite the country’s loud, conservative voices, there are still many nuances of Indonesia’s relationship with the LGBT community. People who identify as waria, a term that combines the Indonesian words for “woman” and “man,” appear to enjoy a limited measure of acceptance and freedom. Depending on one’s definition, “waria” could mean anyone from a professional drag queen to a transgender person, but because of their visibility in the entertainment and beauty industry, Indonesian culture tolerates them, for the most part considering them amusing oddities.

They’ve carved out a market niche for themselves as top-notch hairdressers and stylists, and a few of them host TV talk shows. There’s even a Miss Waria beauty pageant. However, for the most part, Indonesia’s waria try to keep low profiles, as they face a number of stigmas relating to being dirty, dangerous or engaged in sex work.

Beyond the entertainment, cosmetic or NGO industry, waria face many official and social barriers to safe and stable employment. Since Indonesia does not officially permit sex changes, the identity cards that all Indonesian citizens carry to show (birth-assigned) gender and religion are unavoidable giveaways, and employers are left to discriminate from there. This being the case, quite a few waria turn to sex work — or engage in it from time to time — spurred on by both discriminatory hiring practices in the formal marketplace and Indonesia’s booming gay sex tourism industry.

In Indonesia’s sex economy, all sex workers must navigate the ever-shifting balance of a trade that is illegal by law but more or less allowed by practice. On paper, sex work is a “crime against decency,” but there are regulated red light districts that operate with the grudging collaboration of community officials, who will embed health clinics and rehabilitation centers within these neighborhoods.

Sometimes, though, local officials feel pressure to clean up their town and image, and the sex workers are forced to temporarily scatter. It can be a volatile back-and-forth, as militant groups tend to carry the mantle for those who feel that the government should be doing more to enforce the letter of the law. Religious vigilante organizations like the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI) will raid, attack, and harass sex workers, suspected or otherwise. Already pushing for stricter, more conservative laws with respect to homosexuality, the MUI’s fatwa is yet another weapon in their hands — the FPI has already used previous fatwas issued by the MUI as justification for violence — and endangers Indonesian LGBT citizens and allies.

Rainbow map of Indonesia, via Wikimedia Commons

Rainbow map of Indonesia, via Wikimedia Commons

Although Indonesia has a history of religious pluralism — a country where you can belong to any religion, as long as it’s one of the approved six — religious militants such as the FPI are allowed to operate within the country as if that were not the case.

The government has yet to respond to the MUI’s fatwa putting all international eyes on recently-inaugurated President Joko Widodo.  Widodo was elected last year on a campaign that many compared to President Obama’s in 2008 for its liberal, people-power promises of change. However, he seems to be having an anticlimactic honeymoon in office.

Widodo is likely having a hard time shaking off the stifling influence of conservative backers who saw him through inauguration. Widodo was nominated for Indonesia’s highest office by Megawati Sukarnoputri, former president and daughter of Indonesia’s first president, who made no secret of who would really be in charge. At a campaign event last year, she publicly chastised Widodo, noting: “I made you a presidential candidate…But you should remember that you are the party’s official, with a function of implementing the party’s programs and ideology.”

In addition to avoiding a showdown with Megawati, Widodo may also be avoiding conflict with the MUI itself, especially after Indonesian Muslim groups pushed a born-in-Kenya-style smear campaign during the presidential race that claimed he was a Chinese Christian — not a Javanese Muslim — intent on destroying Islam in Indonesia.

Having been in office for less than a year, Widodo’s stance on human rights has already proven inconsistent with his campaign image. He opened his term by refusing to negotiate or reconsider waiving death penalties for the leaders of the Bali Nine, a group of drug traffickers whose case is currently being appealed on the basis of how swiftly he rejected their claims to have been rehabilitated. The UN also continues to wait on Indonesia’s long-overdue human rights report. So, whether by coercion or by choice, it seems unlikely that Widodo will offer a swift and decisive rebuke of the MUI’s incitement to violence against gays.

Instead, the best hope for Indonesia’s LGBT community is that the country’s community leaders and citizens — especially its Muslim citizens — will speak out and stand up against the MUI’s illegitimate incitement to violence. The group of clerics has set an example for immorality in their endorsement of killing gays, and the world’s largest Muslim nation deserves better leaders within their faith.

Obama (sort of) backs mandatory voting. Here’s why it’s a good (and bad) idea Thu, 19 Mar 2015 12:00:40 +0000 At a town hall event in Cleveland yesterday, President Obama came awfully close to endorsing the idea that every American citizen should have to vote:

Mandatory voting, which is enforced in twelve democracies and on the books in others, has been kicking around in American liberal circles for a while — our own Josh Yazman argued for it just last week. And the data are clear: If your goal is to boost turnout, then forcing your citizens to cast ballots is (unsurprisingly) the best way to do it.

But does that, by itself, make the policy a good idea?

Mandatory voting would be a dramatic shift in America, a country whose citizens perceive a deeper sense of a “right to be left alone” than those of other industrialized democracies. At the same time, the portion of the population that shows up for our current elections does not represent the country as a whole: It is whiter, older, richer and more educated.

So would turning voting into a more frequent, less time-consuming form of jury duty do our democracy any good?

The pros: Everyone is voting

A few good things happen when voter turnout is guaranteed to be close to 100%. For starters, you eliminate the aforementioned racial and economic disparities in the electorate, closing the gap between the result of an election and the aggregate “true preference” of the public.

The week before Election Day in 2012, Pew released a survey showing President Obama and Mitt Romney tied at 47% among likely voters. But self-described non-voters backed President Obama by an overwhelming 59-24 margin, reporting a 64-28 favorable/unfavorable rating of the President. Altogether, the survey showed that a hypothetical election in which all adults voted would have produced an Obama landslide, with the President holding a 51-39 edge among all adult respondents.

President Obama votes for himself in 2012, via Wikimedia Commons

President Obama votes for himself in 2012, via Wikimedia Commons

Non-voters also expressed more liberal views on economic and foreign policy issues than voters. And at least with respect to the economic issues, there’s a straightforward explanation: Over half of non-voters had household incomes of less than $30,000 per year.

This data point alludes to perhaps the best case for mandatory voting: It changes the way campaigns have to approach the electorate. No longer worried about turning out their respective bases with wedge issues, candidates would be forced to appeal to slices of the electorate they currently ignore. Our elections would feature fewer fireworks and more substance, as the Todd Akins of the Republican Party would feel less compelled to talk about “forcible rape” and more compelled to explain why they’re trying to make life more difficult for citizens who face a host of structural disadvantages already.

The cons: Everyone is voting

There are a number of reasons why people don’t vote.

A lot of them are bad. For example, in presidential elections, the number of non-voters who want to vote but are unable to register — either they lacked access or missed a deadline — often exceeds the margin of victory in the national popular vote. Additionally, the ways in which our elections are administered — on a weekday, with uneven distribution of polling stations — turn a significant number of would-be voters into non-voters every year. So there are a number of policies we could implement, short of mandatory voting, that would expand ballot access and boost turnout.

But some of them are good, and can be interpreted as equal expressions of political speech to casting a ballot. For instance, a citizen who surveys the field of candidates and carefully decides that they can’t stomach any of them is absolutely exercising their right to political speech by not voting. And unless 49 more states add Nevada’s “none of the above” line to allow for an accounting of protest abstentions, it’s hard to argue that forcing them to show up and write someone in is any more representative.

Alternatively, a citizen who knows how much they don’t know about the pros and cons of their vote choice could very easily conclude that their most responsible decision is to sit the election out. That’s political speech, too.

Forcing this subset of the population to show up might not be such a good idea. Campaigns respond to the electorates they are presented, and just as our candidates will be forced to address the influx of voters with who are currently excluded from the electorate for structural reasons, they will also have to take the opinions of the perennially uninformed into account.

Ask any political consultant in Australia how they feel when two people voice the same wildly incorrect opinion in a focus group. In America, there’s a good chance that at least one of them won’t show up to vote; in Australia, they get pandered to along with the rest of the populace.

57.5 percent of eligible citizens cast a ballot in 2012. Relative to the democracies we like to compare ourselves to, that’s an embarrassingly low level of voter turnout for any national election, let alone a presidential  one. But the remaining 42.5% of the public that didn’t vote is not a monolith; there are a number of reasons why they didn’t turn out.

And there are a host of policies we can implement — starting with universal voter registration, a voting week and a standardized polling place — that will expand ballot access to those who want to vote without coercing those who don’t, or feel that they shouldn’t.

Of grand juries and blue ribbon commissions: How America will dispute the lessons of Ferguson Wed, 18 Mar 2015 16:00:29 +0000 There were 22 gunshot fatalities over the course of the 1967 Newark Riot, an event that, along with the Detroit Riot that same year, fundamentally altered the way ordinary Americans viewed Civil Rights movement toward the end of the 60’s. Never mind the fact that most of the homicides that were committed were committed by police – those erstwhile upholders of the law, white Americans feared that property destruction was what threatened the country with lawlessness most of all.

That a certain segment of the population could ignore how the law was flouted most egregiously by those we entrust to keep it became possible thanks to a campaign to discredit any attempts to investigate what really happened during the Newark riot. And as critics across the political spectrum line up to discredit the Department of Justice’s reports on both Cleveland and Ferguson, yet again America runs the risk of repeating past mistakes.

gunshot fatalities in the newark riot

Newark police kept track of how many people they killed during the 1967 Riots

Hattie Gainor was one of those killed during the Newark riot. Her daughter, who witnessed the murder, was later interviewed by journalist Ron Porambo for his book on the riot, No Cause for Indictment. Her testimony is worth quoting at length:

I was outside on the sidewalk, I looked up and saw my mother looking out her second-floor window. They were shooting at the projects then… by the time I got [there] my mother was laying in a puddle of blood and my kids were screaming… Then two state troopers with yellow stripes on their pants came in. ‘We made a mistake,’ one of them said. ‘We shot the wrong person, we’re killing innocent people’… then they let her lay there in the blood until the ambulance came hours later and then she was dead.

hattie gainor

A striking thing occurred in the aftermath of the riot – on each and every count, a grand jury assembled to determine who was guilty for these crimes found itself unable to indict a single person for any one of the shootings.

White America, which would soon whip itself up into a fury over “law and order” and elect Richard Nixon, nonetheless accepted each pronouncement that “due to insufficient evidence of any criminal misconduct, the jury found no cause for indictment,” with strange ease. So much for law and order.

Of the 22 gunshot fatalities during the course of the riots, perhaps one was the result of the “sniper fire” on which police tried to place the blame. One firefighter’s death was most likely the result of a ricocheting National Guard-issue armor piercing bullet:

michael moran

Despite their acceptance of the grand jury proceedings, the majority of Americans would not embrace the findings of the Kerner Commission, with its pronouncement that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” (This was even after the first Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act). Successfully creating an integrated society would require massive investments that many were unwilling to make: “…what white Americans have never fully understood – but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

Nor would America accept the conclusions of New Jersey’s own Lilley Commission (also known as the Hughes Commission), which bluntly stated that “the single continuously lawless element operating in the community is the policy force itself.” President Johnson, who ordered the “Blue Ribbon” Kerner Commission to determine “what happened, why it happened, and how it could be prevented from happening again” in the first place – wasted no time in summarily ignoring its findings.

As I follow the right-wing’s unfolding reaction to the Department of Justice’s reports on both Cleveland and Ferguson, I have a feeling we may see history try and repeat itself. Fox News is already hard at work obfuscating the Department of Justice’s recent Ferguson report. One need look no further than Megyn Kelly’s insistence that “hands up, don’t shoot” never happened (I warn you, even by Fox News standards this is one of the most infuriating TV segments I have ever seen):

Instead of focusing on what the DOJ revealed about the Ferguson police department’s racist policing tactics, Fox has been hammering home the fact that the Justice Department could not charge Darren Wilson with violating Michael Brown’s civil rights by killing him – something that is almost impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

As we wait on reports from Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s Ferguson Commission and Ohio governor John Kasich’s police-community task force to hopefully add to the debate on this issue, we must prepare for the eventuality that some will try and resist everything these reports attempt to teach us.

Some conservatives are starting to take the DOJ’s Ferguson report seriously, though not all the report’s opponents are conservatives. As this battle drags on into election season, said opponents may well choose to stick to their old time-tested tactics: clinging, talisman-like, to the grand jury’s decision, shouting “RULE OF LAW! RULE OF LAW!” to no one in particular, doing everything in their power to reject anything that points to the root causes of racial injustice in this country.

I leave you with Ron Porambo’s reflection on the institution of the grand jury, from his aforementioned book written in 1971:

The term “grand jury” has a ring of omniscience and purity which is often far from justified. At times a jury may be a political weapon, a gilded weather vane of the times, or even an instrument of ugly injustice. As Newark’s attorney’s well knew, a grand jury was comprised of twenty-three men and women who were assembled, given information and witnesses by the prosecutor’s office, and then left to themselves to draw conclusions. Their evaluations, as often as not, would be influenced by those who had instructed them. That the jurors may have asked many specific questions regarding various aspects of the homicides – chiefly, whose hands had held the guns – does not mean there was an effort to furnish them with answers.

On April 23 the jury’s presentment was made public. Its findings weren’t much of a surprise in a city with Newark’s background. First, the wording of the presentment’s conclusion–”in the final analysis, the responsibility for the loss of life and property that is the inevitable product of rioting and mass lawlessness cannot be placed upon those whose duty it is to enforce law and protect the freedom of our society”– was more a direct reply to the Hughes report than an explanation of homicides.

It’s probably natural that grand juries are a conservative institution, obscuring the path toward police accountability. But when attempts to uncover the structural foundations of injustice are measured in commissions convened and reports released, how much progress have we really made?

Florida Democrats’ Savior Wed, 18 Mar 2015 14:00:41 +0000 It was a small miracle that Gwen Graham won her House seat last November. During one of the worst years for Democrats in modern history, she faced a Republican incumbent in a Florida panhandle district where Mitt Romney beat President Obama by six percentage points. Nevertheless, she eked out a three thousand vote win.

While she had many advantages unavailable to most Democratic challengers, including a father who served as Governor and Senator in Florida, the keys to her upset win were her political savvy and ability to connect with rural voters, a skill that all too many Democrats these days lack.

Her unlikely victory caught the attention not only of a shrinking House Democratic caucus, but also of a demoralized Florida Democratic Party. After four years of Florida’s tea party Governor Rick Scott, they believed they had finally found the candidate who could unseat him in ex-Republican, ex-independent Democrat Charlie Crist. However, Scott managed to carry the state by running up the score in Florida’s rural counties. Without presidential election-level turnout in urban Democratic strongholds, Crist couldn’t make up for Scott’s rural margins. It seemed that as long as Florida held statewide elections in midterm years, Democrats would be locked out.

Graham’s victory provided Florida Democrats with an alternative vision for the future. Talk began of a possible gubernatorial bid for Graham in 2018, when Governor Scott will be term-limited out of office. And 2018 has the distinction of being the most important gubernatorial election of the decade: Whoever occupies the governor’s mansion after the election will work with the Florida General Assembly, which will almost certainly be heavily conservative, to draw new congressional districts. Controlling the governorship could mean the difference between Republicans further gerrymandering the state and Democrats finally getting a fair shake at an even map.

However, if Graham is to run for governor in 2018, she has to survive her 2016 congressional election, one in which the National Republican Congressional Committee has already taken aim at as one of their top targets for the next election cycle. And in her heavily Republican district, there’s a deep bench of Republican state legislators who could take her on.

National Republicans have already put in motion a plan to take her out before she can become a threat. While Graham voted for the authorization of the Keystone Pipeline, that wasn’t enough to fend off robocalls hammering her for not being enthusiastic enough in her opposition to Obama’s veto thereat. As Republicans try to paint her as just another hardcore liberal, Graham is already laying the groundwork for her reelection in running against the pettiness of Washington.

During the Homeland Security funding fight, Graham not only promised her constituents that she would refuse to accept her salary if DHS funding lapsed, but she also sponsored a bill that would withhold all congressional pay if they failed to fund the department. She’s also introduced legislation that would prevent members of Congress from using taxpayer funds to fly first class. Knowing that her vote would be irrelevant, she refused to vote Nancy Pelosi for speaker, a move that will be critical to her reelection campaign.

Whether Graham can again overcome the headwinds of her district will depend on which of the two narratives that voters believe. If Republicans can sell Graham as an out of touch Washington liberal, she will crash and burn as a one time congresswoman. However, if she can convince voters that she is a politician above the partisan fray who has their best interests in mind, her odds of victory rise dramatically.

Because the stakes are so high, she is likely to have one of the most expensive House races in the county. Even if she can win the trust of her constituents over the next year and a half, a tide of negative ads could quickly demolish all the progress she’s made. Having a robust fundraising operation to combat the inevitable onslaught will be a necessity for her immediate survival and possible run for the governorship — we can only hope that national Democrats are willing to at least match the GOP’s intense focus on her race.

While she might not be everything that liberals love to see in a candidate, Graham is likely one of the only Democrats who can win statewide in Florida. And if a Governor Graham can secure a fairer legislative and congressional map statewide, Democrats will have a much stronger bench to build momentum in the state after years of Republican dominance.

Aaron Schock goes down Wed, 18 Mar 2015 12:00:18 +0000 Citing “constant questions” concerning use of taxpayer and campaign funds for private expenditures, Congressman Aaron Schock (R – Downton Abbey) abruptly announced yesterday that he will resign at the end of this month.

According to Schock, the strain of weathering multiple scandals was preventing him from effectively traveling the world serving his constituents in Peoria, Illinois.

Seems legit.

While Schock’s downfall will be officially credited to the recent string of revelations relating to his personal use of campaign and taxpayer funds, along with politically-affiliated real estate deals, that isn’t what we’re going to remember him for. Plenty of politicians play on the margins when it comes to financial disclosures, and still more use their political influence for financial gain.

But not too many politicians flaunt their ill-gotten wealth, power and finely-tuned deltoids as brazenly as Aaron “Haters Gonna Hate” Schock, who never saw a vacation he didn’t want someone else to pay for — and have his “personal photographer” document for the world to see.

And boy, did we see it.

John Aravosis’s coverage of Aaron Schock here at AMERICAblog goes all the way back to 2009, before the then-freshman congressman was even a twinkle in the House Ethics Committee’s eye. Schock’s staunchly conservative record didn’t seem to square with the rest of his persona, which, as John noted, came off as pretty gay. Observations led to questions, which Schock refused to answer. That led to rumors, which eventually made their way across the ideological aisle and into the conservative blogosphere. By now, it’s fairly common knowledge that if Aaron Schock isn’t gay, he’s not very convincing.

If you go through AMERICAblog’s Aaron Schock archives in chronological order, you can relive the saga of the “homophobe boy-toy” for yourself.

And while some argued that it wasn’t fair to cast aspersions on Schock’s sexuality, no one could argue that he didn’t invite the attention. Never one to shy away from all the wrong kinds of coverage, Schock’s positively steamy Instagram account always attracted more buzz than his fiercely conservative politics. Be it via swanky hotels, private jets or, most recently, a replica Presidential podium (which accounted for roughly $5,000 of nearly $80,000 in taxpayer money that he spent on furniture in 2009), Schock spent his career reminding the world how awesome his life — and his abs, and his shoe collection — was.aaron-schock-men's-health

Schock didn’t just break the rules; he didn’t bother to pretend that he wasn’t breaking them — not only with respect to his finances, but also with respect to his public image. As John A. noted last month:

The semi-nudity was beneath the dignity of his office. And the pictures of the Peoria congressman galavanting around the world in Greece, Italy, Turkey, England, India, China and Brazil — and then skiing in Jackson Hole and surfing in Hawaii — had a braggadocio about them that was asking for trouble.

Schock made himself into a big story by insisting on living a Real Housewives of Beverly Hills lifestyle in a House of Cards town, and in doing so invited more scrutiny than his older, possibly more corrupt counterparts in Washington. As I wrote on Monday:

Sooner or later, Aaron Schock is going down. If the current round of spending revelations and ethics complaints don’t get him, something else will. This is a man who clearly believes that either the rules don’t apply to him, or that they won’t ever catch up to him. But after six years of flagrant opulence, he’s put himself on the radar screen of every political journalist who knows that where there’s smoke there’s a flamer fire.

So no, we aren’t going to remember Aaron Schock for being shady with his finances. We’re going to remember him for being a living, breathing Dolce & Gabbana caricature; a bougie, fatuous, flamboyant narcissist who made his career fighting against basic human rights for gay people while, at the same time, living out one of the gayest lifestyles any member of Congress ever has.

After all, how many people own a 0% rating from the Human Rights Campaign and these pants?










Shake it off, sailor.

Indonesia’s top clerics issue fatwa against gays Tue, 17 Mar 2015 16:00:33 +0000 The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the most prominent Islamic clerical organization in the country, has issued a fatwa calling for the death penalty to be imposed for the crime of having gay sex.

The edict was issued earlier this month to “remind” the public that homosexuality is a “deviant sexual behavior” that the society should not tolerate, as it puts a “stain on the dignity of Indonesia.”

As Hasanuddin A.F., the head of the MUI’s fatwa commission, said, as quoted by the Jakarta Globe:

It doesn’t matter that they love each other…The law still prohibits it. In Islamic law, it’s a sexual act that must be heavily punished. It would be bad if the government allows same-sex marriage.

The fatwa is particularly worrisome given how influential MUI is in Indonesia, which is home to the world’s largest Muslim population. The organization was founded under Suharto’s New Order in 1975, and has since been the umbrella organization for Muslim clerics in the country. So when they tell believers in Indonesia that a certain group of people shouldn’t have the full protection of the law behind them, it carries quite a bit of weight. Prior fatwas issued by the MUI have been used to justify violence against the Ahmadiyah community, a sect of Islam branded as heretical by the MUI.

And given the already-high rate of violence against religious minorities in the country, the active incitement to religiously-motivated violence against the homosexuals, coming from the country’s most prominent religious body, has put Indonesia’s LGBT community on notice.

On paper, Indonesia is typically considered one of the world’s more progressive majority-Muslim countries. Its constitution officially grants its citizens freedom of religion (provided that you subscribe to one of the six religions recognized by the government) and, while same-sex marriage is prohibited, homosexuality is only officially criminalized in a few localities.

The country is also frequently held up as an example of how wrong critics of Islam are when they say that the religion is used to make life worse for those who don’t adhere to its principles. After all, only 16 percent of Indonesia’s Muslims believe that the death penalty should be assigned to apostates.

That’s low in comparison to, say, Egypt, where a 2013 Pew poll showed that 88% of Egyptian Muslims endorsed killing those who leave the faith, but it’s still awfully high. High enough to be cause for legitimate concern for Indonesians whose lifestyle doesn’t square with the one outlined for them by the country’s religious leaders.

And, apparently, high enough to make it politically risky to condemn theologically-justified calls to violence, as the Indonesian government has not yet come out against the MUI’s persecutory instruction.

Rainbow map of Indonesia, via Wikimedia Commons

Rainbow map of Indonesia, via Wikimedia Commons

Shame on them if they don’t. If they won’t stand up for sexual minorities in their own country on an issue as simple as “Should these people be alive?” then they deserve embarrassment on a global level.

It’s incumbent upon governments and ordinary citizens around the world to, in the face of edicts such as these, remind Indonesia that this isn’t how modern societies operate. When a religious body can openly advocate for the persecution and killing of a group of people, and expect to be taken seriously, it doesn’t prevent a “stain on the dignity” of their country; it creates one.

Republicans are trying to legally rig elections: Michigan edition Tue, 17 Mar 2015 14:00:17 +0000 Yesterday, Bloomberg’s Dave Weigel reported that Michigan is considering allocating its electoral votes by congressional district, rehashing previous proposals in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Virginia.

The bill is making its way through the state’s legislature alongside a different bill that would divide its electoral votes up proportionally by state popular vote. In a move designed to attract Democratic support, this bill is tied to Michigan’s National Popular Vote bill. If the joint bill passes, Michigan would allocate its electoral votes by statewide popular vote until enough states are gathered to trigger the NPV system. That could be a while.

In 2012, President Obama won 54% of Michigan’s popular vote, which is good for 16 electoral votes. However, proportional allocation by congressional district or statewide vote would have left him with seven or nine electoral votes, respectively.

Bills like these have popped up in a number of blue-to-purple states with Republican legislatures, and we should expect to see more on the way. As I’ve written before, the Republican party has realized that it can’t win the presidency with the current rules of the game in place. Consequently, considering their policy agenda more important than free, fair and consistent elections, they have fully embraced the idea of tweaking our electoral institutions in their favor.

Some conservatives, such as National Review columnist Jim Geraghty, have no problem being open about the fact that this has nothing to do with small-d democratic theory and everything to do with big-R Republican success. But GOPers in Michigan are now busy trotting out tired old lines about how much more fair it is to allocate electoral votes based on wildly unrepresentative congressional seats. As the Michigan bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Cindy Gamrat (R-Plainwell) wrote on her Facebook page: “My bill increases the value of every Michigan citizen’s vote in Presidential elections. Far from electoral college rigging – it strengthens the voice of each Michigan voter!”

No, no it doesn’t. It increases the value of Michigan citizens’ votes in Presidential elections for voters whose candidate lost the state of Michigan. Rather than strengthening the voices of each Michigan voter, it muffles the voices of black people Democrats who live in Michigan’s cities and are already underrepresented on the congressional level.

Republican sign via Shutterstock

Republican sign via Shutterstock

State Rep. Gamrat cites Nebraska as an example of a state that has congressional district-based allocation of electoral votes but, Nebraska might be moving away from that model, themselves. Looking to avoid a repeat of 2008, when President Obama picked up an extra electoral vote from Nebraska’s Second Congressional District, they currently have a bill that would award all of the state’s electoral votes to the statewide winner. And as obviously political as Nebraska’s move is, on balance theirs makes more sense. As I wrote when the Nebraska bill was introduced:

Congressional seats are perhaps the least representative way to determine the national will. In 2012, Republicans won 54 percent of House seats with 49 percent of the two-party vote for members of Congress. But that has nothing to do with why the bill’s sponsor, Beau McCoy, is moving it through the legislature. He and [Nebraska Republican Party Chairman J.L.] Spray have both endorsed other (blue) states allocating electoral votes by congressional district; they just want to make sure that Republicans “have the maximum voice in the Electoral College” by any means necessary — that means winner-take-all allocation in red states and congressional allocation in blue states.

There is no serious argument for allocating electoral votes by congressional district that doesn’t end with “because it helps Republicans win.” And as MSNBC’s First Read noted in 2011, when Pennsylvania proposed a similar electoral vote-rigging bill, “if you’re looking to change the rules of the game, you’re admitting your party can’t win under the current rules.”

Pat Robertson: Treat your gay son like a “drug addict” Tue, 17 Mar 2015 12:00:53 +0000 On yesterday’s edition of the 700 Club, Pat “You Can Get AIDS From a Towel” Robertson told a caller that she should not act as “an enabler” for her son, who had recently come out as gay and an atheist, but should instead love him the same way you would a “drug addict” in order to bring him back to, per the caller’s wishes “the path of Christ.”

Said Robertson:

You cannot go along and say “I agree with your lifestyle,” and so don’t be an enabler — any more than if he’s a drug addict; you don’t enable people to continue their drug habit. But you let him know you love him. Let him know God loves him….You don’t’ want to shun him. You want to have love, but you’ve got to let him know that you don’t approve of the things that he’s doing.

Here’s the video, via Right Wing Watch:

While Robertson’s comparison is patently offensive, should we really be that surprised? The Christian Right has spent years promoting a family-friendly “love the sinner; hate the sin” message, ever since they realized that calling for real hatred of gays isn’t in vogue anymore (at least not in America). And if you believe that homosexuality is a choice, something that you can choose not to feel or act on, then it’s easier to forgive “bad behavior” in hopes that it will eventually be corrected.

This has sparked a burgeoning ex-gay rehab business that states are slowly but surely banning for children, as such programs amount to child abuse. In other words, the Christian Right has convinced itself that being gay is just another vice. Your son being gay isn’t all that different from your brother being an alcoholic. One might leave you worse off on Judgment Day, but both are nothing more than addictive habit that can be confronted and, with time and prayer, cured.

Just don’t tell that to the adults who actually attend ex-gay rehab, which one straight journalist described as “literally the gayest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

It’s time to stop debating the Islamic-ness of the Islamic State Mon, 16 Mar 2015 16:00:24 +0000 Last Thursday, Mehdi Hassan published a rebuttal to Graeme Wood’s widely-read analysis of the Islamic State. Wood’s piece illustrated the ways in which the Islamic State “derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.” By contrast, Hassan entitled his response: “How Islamic is the Islamic State? Not at all.”

The back-and-forth is only the latest parsing of the Islamic-ness of the self-described Islamic State, which claims its justification based on both the imperial crimes of the West and a hyper-literal, Seventh Century reading of the Quran that is antithetical to modern liberal democracy.

This has political journalists and commentators tied up in knots over the extent to which of these claims to justification should be taken seriously. It’s a familiar cycle: A secularist says that religion is a big deal for militant Islam, a liberal apologist calls them a racist, very smart people chime in to back each of them up, and the liberal community re-learns how to hate itself.

I think it’s time we all agree that both sides of this debate are partly right and move on. Critics of religion, myself included, are more than willing to concede that the Islamic State is not at all representative of the rest of the Muslim community — the point that Islam’s defenders such as Hassan are chiefly concerned with. However, Hassan and others who emphasize the Islamic State’s secular influences should be equally willing to concede that the movement is still very much linked to its stated religious principles.

Hassan inadvertently admits as much in his own article. Despite the headline’s black-and-white implications — that the Islamic State is “not at all” Islamic — he clearly demarcates a role for religion within the Islamic State. As described by forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman, who Hassan cites at length:

ISIS members, [Sageman] says, are using religion to advance a political vision, rather than using politics to advance a religious vision. “To give themselves a bit more legitimacy, they use Islam as their justification. It’s not about religion, it’s about identity . . . You identify with the victims, [with] the guys being killed by your enemies.”

For converts to Islam in particular, he adds, “Identity is important to them. They have . . . invested a lot of their own efforts and identity to become this ‘Muslim’ and, because of this, identity is so important to them. They see other Muslims being slaughtered [and say], ‘I need to protect my community.’” (A recent study found that converts to Islam were involved in 31 per cent of Muslim terrorism convictions in the UK between 2001 and 2010.)

Hassan takes this as evidence that the movement is entirely irreligious, but it can be reasonably interpreted as evidence to the contrary: Members of the Islamic State are thoroughly convinced that their actions are Islamic, and justify their actions as such. Whether that is primarily driven by identity or by an apocalyptic reading of the Quran is irrelevant; if your identity is religious, then it’s hard to argue that actions motivated by your identity are in no way, shape or form religious.

So we can place the Quran’s violent passages in their appropriate context, but we can’t ignore them. As I’ve written before, the danger posed by religious exhortations to violence isn’t that it will turn every single follower into a violent zealot; it’s that they give legitimacy to people whose violence would otherwise have far less justification. Religion isn’t always the cause of violent social movements like the Islamic State, but it absolutely does exacerbate the problems they pose.

Consider this: If Islam was completely removed from the history, politics, culture and economics of the Middle East (an absurd thought experiment, but it’s a thought experiment so bear with me), it’s safe to say that there would still be a violent, anti-Western political movement in the region, spurred by legitimate, secular grievances over centuries of colonial incursions.

However, if the Islamic State were in no way, shape or form Islamic, then we would expect the purely secular movement produced by this thought experiment to attract an equally large following, employ equally brutal tactics and, most importantly, achieve equal levels of success as its real-life counterpart. I’d challenge Hassan and others who insist that the Islamic State is not Islamic to make this expectation with a straight face.

This gives both sides of the debate over the degree of the Islamic State’s Islamic-ness something to chew on. If we want, we can quibble over how Islamic the movement is, but just as the answer isn’t “100%,” the answer most certainly isn’t “Not at all.”

The sooner we reach some kind of middle ground-esque consensus on this point, the sooner we will be able to turn our full attention to how best to push back against the Islamic State and its horrific consequences. Hassan is (rightly) worried that highlighting the religiosity of the movement can be used to absolve the West of its role in the movement’s creation, but responding to that concern by insisting that the movement has nothing to do with its stated principles is an equally irresponsible pendulum-swing in the opposite direction.