Peder D4

Discussion of politics and other odious things

Monday, June 26, 2006

Blogospheric pressure

There's a much discussed question as to how much the blogosphere has helped the right and the left. The most recent post I've seen on this was here at Craig Westover's site. Usually the argument from the right is that the blogosphere has increased the variety of discussion on the right while it's hurt the left by empowering their more extreme elements. That's made it easier for Republicans to be the Big Tent party while making it harder for Democrats to grab any part of the center. Craig notes that
Aside from some challenging ideas from liberals writing about legal theory and jurisprudence, there isn't a lot of challenging liberal writing, and what there is tends to be more libertarian than "big government" liberal.

This tracks with my own experience as well, though it should be noted that the argument quickly becomes self-serving in a 'our side good, your side bad' type of way. But the question is worthwhile. Maybe more importantly, why is this so?
It's important to remember some short-term issues that have shaped the blogosphere so far. The most important is that the left has been out of power as blogs have blossomed. They've felt more need to attack while the right has been been the governing power. Only when the Dem's win through can we test if those roles are ideological or situational.
The other important issue has to do with the way the 2000 election played out. With the protracted fight in Florida it set up a dynamic in which the losing side was bound to find the winner illegitimate. This only increased the passion on the left. If the 2000 election had been won by a 2004 margin the blogosphere would probably be a different place.
There are some longterm aspects which I think are important too. One huge benefit to the right is the way that blogs have empowered libertarians. Libertarians tend to reject the methods of concensus that makes party-building possible. They haven't been able to organize into a bloc that the Republican party respects. The blogosphere has changed that. Not by building a bloc, but by giving libertarians a louder voice. Blogs like Instapundit and the Volokh Conspiracy have had a large role in making the blogosphere what it is. They've helped broaden the tent. Libertarian blogs have also played a role as watchdog when it comes to congressional spending, probably the biggest weakpoint in Republican performance. This has helped Republicans because it helps them return to their principles of small government.
What's happened on the left? They've become organized. They've developed communities. They've become burdened by groupthink. They've developed the 'netroots' phenomenom which empowers activists. In other words, they've given the activists a louder voice. I suspect that this has made all of the difference.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

On the religious Left

Interesting article in the Strib about the growing religious left. Here in Minnesota there is a strong tradition of left leaning churches and other religious institutions so it's good to see that they get some recognition. I can't help but wonder if this has anything to do with Coulter's latest hit piece?
The article is interesting but weak in some important areas. The by line says:

As the religious left rises up, drawing in Protestants, Catholics and Jews, it is treading carefully so as not to violate the value that long kept it silent - belief in the separation of church and state.

But the article does little to explain how their tactics are very different than the religious right. As each fights for it's issues the pattern is largely the same. Religious belief fuels understanding of an issue and the appropriate policy stance. People of like belief then band together and organize towards that stance. It's hard to see any critical difference between doing so in opposition to abortion or for an increase in social funding. Both sets are saying 'I believe are values compel us to do this'.
One very interesting insight here is a basic difference between the religious right and left:

"The religious right tends to quote the Bible, while the left is moved by the longer narratives in which God calls people to do works of justice."

Two things with this, it implies that the right has no ability to analyze longer narratives. And it also suggests that merely quoting the Bible is irrelevant. It'd be pretty easy to charge the religious left with finding what they want in the Bible rather than listening to what it says, no? Anyway, I can only hope that open recognition of a religious left defangs the ridiculous (and dangerous) sentiment that religious speech has no place in the public square.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Humanity, the virus

From the Strib's letters page:

The June 14 edition reports that physicist Stephen Hawking "sees [a] need for colonization of space."

Prof. Hawking favors space settlements that need no support from Earth, so that humans can survive disasters such as global warming, nuclear war or a genetically engineered virus -- which would be created largely by humans.

What is the evidence that the human race ought to survive?


Please remember that this woman has the good of all humanity on her mind.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Gay Marriage Discussion

One of the reasons I wanted to start this blog was to dig into the gay marriage debate. Like many other contentious debates, I fear that both sides of this argument are mostly talking past each other. You really don't understand your own side of a debate unless you have some understanding of the other side. So this is an attempt at a big spoonful of understanding. I'm going to reach out left and right for some reaction in order to sharpen things up. If you feel that something here is mischaracterized, underemphasized or overwrought, please say so.
In this particular debate, I've labeled arguments Left, Right or Procedural, with a number. That's just to tag a specific argument for descriptive purposes. (For what it's worth, I consider myself to be on the right. And I support gay marriage.)


Conservative case for Marriage

I’d like to start with the strongest conservative argument against GM. I want to go in depth a bit here because I think it’s an important one. It goes to the heart of what marriage is, what it has been and what it means to society in general. If you don’t understand the argument against GM, please read this all the way through.
R1. Marriage is one of the bedrock foundations of Western Civilization. For millennia (certainly since Roman times) it’s been seen as a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman. That commitment provided security and stability to society. Especially for children. In the crudest terms it was a tradeoff of access to sex in exchange for security of paternal protection. Men were kept from spreading their seed far and wide and in return women were provided with financial support and an enhanced place in society. Let me emphasize that those are only the crudest terms. There is no reason to believe that the lowest peasants didn’t usually marry for love. The strength of marriage is that it provided the strongest framework for society. The two lovers were joined together as they desired and many benefits ensued.
Yes, this pattern wasn’t followed by every single couple. Husbands and wives slept around. Divorce has been around for many centuries. But adultery and divorce were exceptions to the rule. The majority of couples were committed to each other. Perhaps more importantly, the concepts of lifelong fidelity were widely understood. That was the goal that couples understood they should shoot for.
And the two concepts are important. Fidelity made for a stronger bond between husband and wife. It cut down on the poison of jealousy and ensured against bastardy. It created mutual respect. Lifelong commitment created security, both emotional and financial. A child that was born into a marriage had the security of a family. And that family became a tight knot, and made the fabric of society stronger.
All that changed with the rise of divorce and free love. The idea changed from a tried and true pattern to one of designer choices. Want multiple partners? Go ahead. Some very few could manage. Many more were torn apart by jealousy. And if your designer choice didn’t work out, just crumple it up and throw it out. For the best of reasons, personal freedom and personal happiness, a very old tradition was thrown out.
The widely quoted statistic about 50% of marriages ending in divorce is misleading but useful. The attitude about marriage has changed. Couples go into marriage thinking that if it doesn’t work out this time, they’ll just try again. The idea of a starter marriage is gaining traction. The reasons for getting divorced are smaller and smaller.
Children worry that just about any argument can lead to divorce. Their stability is gone. The FP Gal tells me that consistency and stability are two of the most important things for a child in school. That must be true in other parts of their lives. And who can blame them for worrying? Is their any child in school that hasn’t gone through divorce or had close friends go through it? How permanent can they expect it to be? Where is their bedrock?
And who can blame the divorcees in this climate? How many unhappy husbands and wives are being told to find a way to make it work? How many are told to throw ‘em back and look for a different fish? If the expectation for marriage is lifelong, it’s easier to take the longer view. If a twenty year marriage becomes seen as freakishly impressive, it’s easier to look for the escape hatch.
The same is true for adultery, too. A century ago an adulterer was seen as deeply dishonoring a marriage. They became something of an outcast. Today it’s seen as the norm. Which social climate makes it easier to ‘jump the fence’?
And we can see the outcomes from this. This editorial from the WaPo talks about the current state of marriage in the black community. This is pretty breathtaking (but read the whole thing):

The marriage rate for African Americans has been dropping since the 1960s, and today, we have the lowest marriage rate of any racial group in the United States. In 2001, according to the U.S. Census, 43.3 percent of black men and 41.9 percent of black women in America had never been married, in contrast to 27.4 percent and 20.7 percent respectively for whites. African American women are the least likely in our society to marry. In the period between 1970 and 2001, the overall marriage rate in the United States declined by 17 percent; but for blacks, it fell by 34 percent. Such statistics have caused Howard University relationship therapist Audrey Chapman to point out that African Americans are the most uncoupled people in the country.

And nothing suggests that this trend is going to reverse itself anytime soon. The idea of marriage is in decline. Woe to the future.
There is a third aspect of marriage that I didn’t include above, the aspect of gender. The balance of having a mother and a father has been very important in raising children. Having both male and female perspectives gives boys and girls role models for how to live. A father, for instance, can teach a young boy how to behave towards women and also teach a girl what kind of husband she should look for. And the positives that a mother brings to her children are very obvious. Single parent children are more likely to commit suicide and crime.
As I said above, for the best of reasons this age long tradition was altered. The outcome has been anything but good. If you could go back in time 50 years and predict the things that are happening now, you’d be thrown out of the debate for being an alarmist. Ease divorce laws a notch and wind up with generations of screwed up kids? Sounds pretty extremist doesn’t it? Well, that’s what’s happened.
So what about GM? We’ve already tinkered with a system that worked very well for millennia and it hasn’t worked out well. Should we make another radical shift? Are we sacrificing marriage for noble sounding reasons? Even if it’ll probably be ok, are we being hasty? And shouldn’t the burden of proof be on those who would make the changes? This is the heart of the conservative argument against it.


Arguments against from the Right

These are some of the other arguments against gay marriage from the right. I don’t find them as strong as the first one I outlined, but I’d like to discuss each one. I’ll discuss the counter-arguments from the left next.

R2. Will Twist Marriage – There are some gay groups that have been fairly open about wanting to join marriage so that they can alter the arrangement. Change it to more of an open style marriage. The right sees them as wanting in, just so they can corrupt marriage. I don’t think these people represent more than a tiny minority of gay couples that want to marry.

R3. Is Against the Bible – The reasoning is simple. Homosexuality is sinful. Allowing gay couples to marry stains a union that God created and blessed. The problem with this argument is that it relies solely on a religious argument. It needs some secular backbone to make it stand. For example, I’d reject any law that forbids eating pork just because it’s offensive to Jews and Muslims. (More on this in counter-arguments from the left.)

R4. Is Anti-Democratic – Supporters of gay marriage have almost completely abandoned any attempt at gaining legislative support. The preferred strategy has been to bring the issue to court and wait for a favorable ruling. Many on the right see this as a way of bypassing the will of the people. And I agree. Every time this has gone to a vote the traditionalist side has won. Usually by wide margins (70/30 or so).

R5. Will Grant Gov’t Approval to Homosexual Lifestyle – The argument here is that having the state grant a marriage license is like the people of the state approving of the relationship. People who don’t see homosexuality as an acceptable alternative don’t want to be granting approval. This is a tough argument and it creates the battlefield for those who fight over marriage instead of over civil unions. My take is that both sides are reading too much into the state’s stamp of approval. (But I’m very open to argument.)

R6. Will Lead to Polygamy – This one is gaining traction and coming to the forefront. The argument is simple, if society has no say about it’s basic institutions, what’s to stop the train at gay marriage? Is the next stop polygamy? There’s a certain force behind this argument. I think it goes to the judicial strategy that’s been followed so far. I’ve yet to hear any legal argument for gay marriage that didn’t open the door for polygamy.

I hope that plenty of people from the right will read this site. What other arguments did I miss?


Pro Arguments from the Left

What follows are the arguments for gay marriage that come mostly from the left. I openly admit that my readings from the left aren’t as extensive as from the right. I’ve goggled around and found very little. My education has come from talking to people around me, reading the letters to the editor in the Strib and (most importantly) from gay friends of mine that want to marry. As always, comments are welcome.

L1. Marriage is a civil right – This is the big argument from the left. So big that it almost excludes the need for other arguments. The argument is straightforward. Marriage is a civil right. If gay couples want to marry, they should have the right to. Excluding them is a violation of their civil rights. Simple, no?
The problem I have with this is that I’m not sure I agree with the premise. I’m not sure that marriage is a civil right in the same way that free speech or the right to bear arms is. If marriage can be allowed or disallowed based on the age of the couple are their rights being refused? It doesn’t seem that way to me. Also note, the above argument practically begs for polygamists to demand similar rights. Even adding a numerical limit seems slight. If gender isn’t important enough to treat differently, how can the number of people involved?
L2. Add-ons – By this I mean a number of things that are automatically granted to married couples by denied gay couples. This category is for things like tax breaks, inheritance, visitation rights and so on. I find this to a pretty strong argument but not necessarily leading to full out marriage. A well crafted civil union law could take care of this.
I should also note that I find this to be a peripheral argument. The gay couples that I know want more than this. Their desire to marry has more to do with their love for each other than a desire for tax breaks.
L3. Validation – This is the mirror to the argument against state recognition. Gay couples want validation that their relationship is approved. Again, this is the one that makes ‘marriage’ the battleground rather than civil unions. Frankly, I’ve had a hard time getting my head around this one for pro or con.
L4. Loving Couples Marry – Marriage is what couples that love each other deeply do. Marriage involves stability, emotional support and a general blending of lives together. Gay couples have enjoyed de facto marriage for decades. What they’ve had is the same thing straight couples have enjoyed (minus the add-ons). I find this argument persuasive too. There were a number of reasons that made me want to marry the FP Gal. Most of them were abstract and would fit into this argument. The same thing applies to the gay couples I know who want to marry. (This isn’t as left/right as the other arguments but it so obviously belongs with the pro-arguments that I put it here.)


Counter Arguments from the Left

And now for the counter-arguments from the left. These appear daily in the letters section of the Strib. Color me unimpressed.

CL1. Only hatred – The only reason someone could possibly oppose gay marriage is because they’re filled with hatred for gay people. They’ve got their club and they don’t want people they don’t like to join. Anyone who doesn’t support gay marriage is a bigot. Now I’d be a fool if I didn’t recognize that there isn’t a portion of the population that hates homosexuals. But I honestly don’t think that’s what animates most opponents of gay marriage.
I laid out six different arguments against gay marriage. Four of them are clearly not motivated by any possible hatred R1, R2, R4, R5. Clearly not everyone who opposes gay marriage is a hater. Niven’s law states that ‘There is no cause so right that one can’t find a fool following it.’ Even if some oppose out of hatred, that’s no reason to tar everyone.
(R3 has to do with a Biblical admonition against homosexuality. That sometimes leads to hatred. I’d argue that that’s becoming less so as churches are emphasizing ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’. Homosexuality is gaining more tolerance within society. Probably the surest way to reverse that is to label anyone who disagrees with you as a bigot.)
CL2. Marriage is already hurting; fix it first – The argument goes like this: if you can’t even fix marriage for straight people, why are you worrying about gay people? This argument fails on two particulars. First it’s hard to believe that many of the people that offer this are arguing in good faith. There is a movement called Covenant Marriage that is working to fix marriage through stricter divorce laws and mandated counseling. I’ve yet to find anyone who supports gay marriage and Covenant marriage.
The second failure is even worse. Picture ‘marriage’ as a boat. The boat has sprung leaks and some of the passengers are trying to patch them. While this is going on another group is setting up a large drill in the middle of the boat. When the first group tries to stop them, they say ‘Why don’t you fix all the other leaks and then you can talk to us’. This argument will never convince the opposition.
CL3. First (or next) step to Theocracy – There’s a growing belief that ‘separation of church and state’ means that religious people shouldn’t be allowed to effect policy. This is a horrible idea. It’s a mess historically. The civil rights movement of the 60’s was grounded in Christian faith for instance. The effect of such a separation would be overpowering. Jesus talked often and passionately about helping the poor. Should welfare be stopped? A different example is today’s religious left and their deep concern for the environment. Those concerns are largely fueled by the Christian idea of being stewards of the world or the pagan idea of an ‘earth mother’. Should they be shut out of political discussion?
CL4. Rights aren’t decided by majorities – That’s the argument in a nutshell. The idea is that majorities can’t be trusted to honor minority rights. I understand the argument but it has some problems. The first one is obvious. If ‘the people’ can’t be trusted, who can? A small panel of appointed judges? Why are they more trustworthy?
The second problem is that in democracies, majorities do decide on rights. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were ratified by majorities. Every additional amendment has had the will of the people at it’s heart. Voting rights were extended to blacks and to women because whites and men voted it so. (Yes, there are protections for minority rights built into the system. Arguing that something new like gay marriage is an obviously protected right begs a few questions though, doesn’t it?)
The biggest problem with this approach is that it turns people off from the democratic process. If I believe that X is right and that judges will surely agree with me, what reason do I have to convince my fellow citizens about X? Frankly, they’re all moral reprobates for possibly disagreeing with me. Fun stuff, huh?
CL5. Interracial marriage – Antimiscegenation laws were wrong and so would be laws against gay marriage. The comparison is simple but fails on a basic point. Race is literally skin deep. Gay marriage involves gender which more of a fundamental difference. I could also point out that these laws were struck down after broad social acceptance throughout the country. They were never part of the leading edge of social change.


Procedural Arguments

There are also some important procedural questions that surround the gay marriage issue. I’d like to take some time to address those too. These aren’t necessarily left or right but they are important.
P1. Amendments are important/overkill – Why an amendment? There are laws that have been especially designed for this, so why go through the amendment process? The answer goes back to Roe v Wade. Both the left and right have learned their lessons well over the last thirty years and this is the result.
The lesson from the left is that the courts are an important battleground for policy issues. The lesson to the right is that they have to find an area that the courts can’t overturn. And voila, you get to the amendment process.
The whole process is very sad actually. The left has stopped trying to engage in discussion on this issue. Their opponents must be motivated by nothing more than hatred so there’s no reason to talk with them. No need to convince people, just call them names.
Meanwhile the right has seen that winning elections isn’t important for legislative goals, but only for judicial ones. If 70% of the electorate believe something, it doesn’t matter. If the correct four or five people believe something than it becomes the law of the land. And so they turn to amending constitutions. It’s hard for me to blame them. I do think that the proposed amendment here in Minnesota is overkill. It’d ban not only gay marriage but any form of civil union as well. Craig Westover argues that a better amendment would be:

The legislature of this state shall have the sole authority to define the legal requirements of a civil contract of marriage and the sole authority to define, by legislation, all other marriage-like relationships to be formally recognized by the state, as regards number and sex of the parties involved. Such definition shall not be subject to review by the judiciary of this state.

This provision does not prohibit any two or more individuals of any sex from engaging in independent contractual arrangements to achieve a marriage-like relationship. The recognition by the state of such a relationship extends only to the validity of the legal contacts in force, and no other rights or obligations of the state to the parties can be assumed.

I can get behind this. In democracies like ours, issues should be argued over and settled by the people, not by judges. What’s the point of the legislative branch otherwise?
P2. There’s more important work for the legislature to do – Usually what follows this argument is a laundry list of things like health care, the environment or war in Iraq. Different things motivate different people. For some the health care debate is vitally important to their everyday lives. For others (myself included) it’s a boring debate over wonkish policy details. That this issue has created such debate already should be an illustration of how important it is to many. How about a compromise? If no gay couple will seek to challenge existing law for the next decade let’s table this for the same time period and take a look at it then. What can be the harm if this isn’t an important issue?
P3. Existing law will protect marriage – This is a popular argument from the Strib’s editors and their choice of letters to run. It’d be easier to take seriously if one could believe that the editors and letter writers would support existing law during the inevitable lawsuits. Absent that it’s hard to take this in good faith.