Saturday, June 30, 2012

Conservatism and Mental Illness

It is a well-known--though little remembered--fact that the Soviet Union used psychiatry and mental hospitals to punish and imprison dissenters from Soviet communism.  If you disagreed with what was obviously true--the ideology of communism--then you must be mentally ill.  And this went on for decades, until the Soviet Union fell in 1989.
So it was with more than a little astonishment when I heard what uber-conservative radio host Michael Savage had to say about Chief Justice John Roberts, who voted to sustain the Affordable Care Act of the Obama administration:
"Let's talk about Roberts," Savage said. "I'm going to tell you something that you're not gonna hear anywhere else, that you must pay attention to. It's well known that Roberts, unfortunately for him, has suffered from epileptic seizures. Therefore he has been on medication. Therefore neurologists will tell you that medication used for seizure disorders, such as epilepsy, can introduce mental slowing, forgetfulness and other cognitive problems. And if you look at Roberts' writings you can see the cognitive disassociation (sic) in what he is saying..."
Now I know that that was just one guy, with one very big mouth.  But still....

Clearly, it is not Justice Roberts who is sick here. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Reflections on the Supreme Court Decision of Health Care

First of all, I'm very glad that this Court majority to uphold the health care law was not an ideological one.  With Chief Justice Roberts joining the four liberal justices, you have a committed conservative crossing the ideological line that tends to bifurcate the Supreme Court.  And that gladdens my heart, because I'm a big believer in being open-minded about matters, such that if the facts point away from your ideology, then sometimes the facts need to rule while the ideology gives way.

The Court held that the 'individual mandate' was constitutional under the taxing powers of the Constitution, though not the 'commerce' powers.  In doing so, the Court wasn't looking to strike down Congressional legislation but instead was looking to support the Congress in its legislative function if at all possible, which is important in a republic and a democratic form of government, where the people rule through its elected representatives.  Supreme Court justices are appointed for life, and because of that, they need to use their power sparingly and very carefully, lest it be abused.

Now, the ball bounces back into the political realm, where the Republicans are still going to try and undercut or eliminate this health care legislation by elected Mitt Romney and a Republican-controlled Congress.  So the battle is not over, but it shifts back to the election later this fall.

As for me, I've never believed that the Obama health care legislation was perfect or ideal.  It is rather a work in progress, the result of compromises all over the place in an attempt to provide health care coverage to most Americans while getting health care costs under control.  I've come to believe that health care is more like education than it is buying a car or a house. Health care is so important to life that we need to find a way to provide some kind of minimal universal coverage, just as we did earlier in our nation's life for elementary and high school education.

The nation already provides coverage for the majority of Americans, through Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans health benefits, federal government employee health care, etc. So in some ways, this issue is moot; it is already decided. Now we need to find our way forward to cover every citizen in a careful, fiscally responsible way. And that is going to be a huge undertaking in the years to come. We've only just begun.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

William F. Buckley, Jr.: Beware of Ayn Rand

I was an avid reader of the National Review for about 15 years in the 80s and 90s.  For those of you not familar with this magazine, it was THE flagship conservative magazine for decades after its founding by William F. Buckley in 1955.  In the editorial staff and content of National Review, Buckley did his best to hold together a very fractious conservative movement, made up of anti-Communist hawks, conservative Catholics, evangelical Protestants, libertarians, and free-market business types. 

But there were certain 'conservatives' who Buckley did not try to hold within his coalition.  To the contrary, he saw certain groups on the Right as so radical and extreme in their ideological leanings as to be dangerous to true conservatism.  Two of those groups were the John Birch Society and the devotees centered about Ayn Rand.

Reading through a biography of William F. Buckley that I picked up recently at the wonderful St. Francis Episcopal Church booksale, I found the following description of his encounter with the Randians.  (This is particularly helpful, given the influence of Ayn Rand among today's conservative movement and Republican Party.)

[Whittaker] Chambers wrote irregularly for National Review, starting but not finishing many articles.  His columns on foreign policy were mediocre.  He was not so much interested in reiterating the threat of communism as in examining what he believed to be the spiritual crisis of the West.  His most impressive articles were a critique of Ayn Rand's didactic novel Atlas Shrugged and a defense of Alger Hiss' right to travel.  In both cases, he was trying to challenge the assumptions of his readers and fellow editors about the nature of conservatism.

Rand, a Russian √©migr√©, had used her novels to proselytize for a philosophy of economic individualism that she called "objectivism," and she had assembled a devoted intellectual following.  On purely economic issues, she differed little from National Review, but unlike National Review's editors, who tried to balance their economic individualism with a traditional conservatism, she made her economic views the basis of a psychology and politics that extolled selfishness and damned religion.  Her movement's emblem was a gold brooch with a dollar sign, rather than a cross, dangling from it.  (The first time she had met Buckley, she had not edeared herself to him by remarking, "You are too intelligent to believe in God!")

Chambers, like the other National Review editors, had come to the Right as a counterrevolutionary idealist.  Like Schlamm and Burhnham he had no particular fondness for the rich.  He saw economic freedom and capitalist individualism not as a path to wealth, but as the antithesis of Communist totalitarianism.  Individualism was not good in itself, but only as a means to civic and religious virtue.  Chambers condemned objectivism as a cousin of Marxism.  "Randian man, like Marxian man, is made the center of a Godless world," Chambers wrote.

Rand and her followers were stung by Chambers' attack.  Rand's young disciple, economist Alan Greenspan, who later became President Gerlad Ford's chief economist [and the Fed chair under Bush, Clinton, and Bush], wrote Buckley, "This man is beneath contempt and I would not honor his 'review' of Ayn Rand's magnificent masterpiece by even commenting on it."  Rand herself complained aloud, "What would you expect from an ex-Communist writing in Buckley's Catholic magazine?"  She never talked to Buckley again and refused to enter any room in which he was present.

But Buckley was not moved by their protests.  For Buckley, Chambers' essay revealed a way to reconcile conservatism with the Catholic critique of laissez-faire capitalism.  Chambers had not demonstrated that individualism was wrong, but only that it was wrong if taken as an end in itself.  He applauded Chambers' attempt to "read Miss Rand right out of the conservative movement."  "Her exclusion from the conservative movement," he wrote later, "was, I am sure, in part the result of her desiccated philosophy's conclusive incompatibility with the conservative's emphasis on transcendence, intellectual and moral."
My thoughts exactly.  Wish you were still around, Mr. Buckley.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What Is Jeb Bush Up To?

Jeb Bush has been raising quite a stir the last week or so.  It seems to be intentional, such as with his hour-long appearance on the Charlie Rose Show.  His basic message is: this is not my father's (or Ronald Reagan's, for that matter) Republican Party.  And the unstated message is: if I run for President, my message will not be the kind of message that seems to be party orthodoxy at the present time.

It's been clear for some time that Bush felt this way about the radical agenda of the Tea Party and the extreme right wing in the Republican Party.  But why is he is raising this issue now?  Does it have something to do with the forthcoming vice-presidential selection to be made by Mitt Romney?  Does he somehow want to influence the forthcoming Republican Nominating Convention?  Does he think he is somehow setting himself up for a run in 2016?

None of these possibilities seem to make any logical sense to me.  Jeb Bush's message hits me the same way that Jon Huntsman's 'moderate' campaign did back a year ago: I am definitely receptive!  But I am a contrarian, an independent thinking, and definitely not a Republican.  And I doubt very much that the Republican Party as a whole is receptive at this time, given that it seems to be a critical message about the party and not just a message of support for Mitt Romney, the last candidate standing from the primaries.

Republicans are trying to be respectful of Jeb Bush, given the almost royal nature of his family, but they are also deflecting his criticism for obvious reasons.  It certainly wouldn't seem to endear him to the right wing of the Republican Party.

All I can think of is that Jeb Bush has calculated in his own mind that he would rather make clear his position now, regardless of the consequences, then hold his peace.  But that also doesn't seem like the controlled, calculated Bush approach that we are quite familiar with.

One possibility that just popped into my head is that Jeb is genuinely regretting the fact that he didn't run this year, and so he is trying to sow dissension within the Republican Party in order that Obama wins the race.  Then Jeb would be free to run in 2016.

Is this possible?  It sounds so coldly calculating, so Machiavellian,!

The other possibility is that Jeb Bush really wants to be the Vice-Presidential pick, and this is the only way he can think of to 'campaign' for the position.  His son, George P. Bush, recently said that if asked, he would accept the position (which is at odds with what Jeb himself has said).

It will be interesting to somehow get more insight into this strange behavior on the part of Jeb Bush.

Update:  The well-connected Dana Milbank of the Washington Post wrote this today in his column:  "This has been one of the worst stretches of the Obama presidency. In Washington, there is a creeping sense that the bottom has fallen out and that there may be no second term."

It strikes me that it could be this change in the political landscape that is now driving Jeb Bush out into public with his peculiar message.  Can't think of the logic behind it other than what I said here above, but it could be connected. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Can We Borrow The Queen?

Watching the British celebration of Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee has been an exercise akin to peering over the fence into the neighbor's backyard and wishing you were there.  The Brits have this institution called the Monarchy that, while having almost no real political power, has the ability to unite the vast majority of the British subjects into a seemingly happy, contented, flag-waving family. 

Now, of course, it's mostly an illusion, because the Brits are having the same economic and cultural problems as everyone else.  But it sure looks and feels good, doesn't it.

Do you think we might borrow the Queen for a little while here in America?

You see, the British developed this cool system where they have a symbolic 'head of state'--the Royalty--who symbolize the nation and all its cultural traditions and historical roots.  But the Monarchy has had no real political power for over 300 years--that lies in Parliament--so few people expect much of it. 

The real political power lies in the 'head of government', which is the Prime Minister, representing the leading party in Parliament.  And it's here where people can either project their political love or hate, depending on their partisan ideologies and expectations.  It's there in Parliament where all the debating and yelling and ranting goes on.  In the royal palace, on the other hand, it's all sweetness and light.

A wonderful system you see, for producing both political pluralism and national unity.  For Americans, on the other hand, the problem is that we have combined the functions of the 'head of state' and the 'head of government' in the Presidency.  And that doesn't work very well, actually. 

Case in point, Barack Obama.  When he tries to function as unifying 'head of state', there are those Republicans and conservatives out there who just can't overlook his role as 'head of government', and so they can't join in the festivities.

We try, oh yes we try. Take our State of the Union Address.  This is about as close as you come on an annual basis to something that unifies that countries.  Both political parties gather in the Congress to welcome the President, accompanied by the Supreme Court and other important national dignitaries.  And the President presents his speech.  But have you noticed recently how that's just not working so well?  It's become very partisan, with people yelling out things like 'You lie!'.

I suppose the last time the Presidency actually functioned semi-well as Head of State was during the first couple years of the Johnson Administration, when due to the shock of the JFK Assassination and the sheer dominance of LBJ himself, there was a sort of unity that resulted in major social advance, such as the Civil Rights Act and the passage of Medicare.  But that rapidly fell apart when the Vietnam War began to sour and the country rose up in protest and dismay.

Perhaps the year or so about 9/11 was somewhat unified as well, but that too fell apart when we rolled into Iraq.

Perhaps the armed forces function for Americans as our 'Head of State', because that seems to be when we're all supposed to stand and salute and weep?  Or is it the flag? 

But nothing works for us like the Queen works for the British.  And so we just seem much more divided and fractured as a nation these days.

So, could we please borrow her Majesty for a little while?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Pay Equality As A Red Herring

The issue of 'pay equality' has surfaced in the news the last few days.  The Obama administration is touting the 'Pay Equality Act' in Congress, while Republicans won't vote for the bill, stating, as Mitt Romney's campaign does, that while they are in favor of gender pay equality in general, they do not support this particular remedy.  As usual, the figure of 77% is thrown out there, which tries to show that women in general make only 77% of what men do across the board in employment.

Frankly, I doubt that 77% figure very much, or rather, that it has any relevance at all these days.  In fact, it seems to me to be a red herring, that ends up distracting us all from the real economic issues facing us these days. 

Let me use as an example my line of work.  If you added up all the pastoral salaries of the women in my Methodist annual conference, you would indeed probably see that the women in general make less in average salary.  But why is that?  Because there are fewer women serving as pastors in churches in general, and because they are not as represented in the biggest churches, where the biggest salaries are paid.  They still tend to be in the smaller churches which pay lower salaries.

Now, is this because there is persistent and pervasive gender discrimination across the board in my Annual Conference?  Well, yes and no.  It is true that there remains in some congregations a reluctance to accept a female pastor.  There are all kinds of reasons for this, including religious ones.  But slowly this is changing, as more women serve as pastors and more congregations experience the gifts and abilities that women bring to ministry.  So slowly but surely the problem of women being accepted as pastors (and therefore getting to the larger churches) is being resolved, and as this is resolved, the 'pay equity' issue is also resolved.  Furthermore, there is no wage discrimination in the conference bureaucracy, where a number of women serve.  So what this shows me is that there is no further legal remedy necessary here, just a continuing evolution in social and religious thinking about the role of women.  Legal remedies as applied to the church would be a disaster, in fact, and perhaps a violation of the separation of church and state.

Likewise with my wife as a teacher.  It would be impossible for most school districts across America to discriminate against women teachers.  My wife makes the same as any man in the system, given their number of years of service and levels of certification.  Now, perhaps my wife doesn't make as a teacher what she should, given the importance of education to society.  But it is what it is, and the Pay Equality Act would not make any difference in this whatsoever.

Likewise with my children in their various lines of work.  There has never been any sense that they are getting paid less or more depending on whether they are male or female.  Likewise with my niece and nephews in the military.  And on and on.  It appears that we have reached the point in America where virtually everyone agrees that there should be no discrimination between men and women when it comes to compensation, and anyone who was prejudice enough to think so would be shunned by the rest of society.

Anyone who knows me will know that I am basically a feminist, in that I believe that women should be treated as the equals of men in every area of life, including marriage, employment, church, military, and so on.  And there certainly was a time back in the 30, 40 and 50 years ago when pay equity was an issue.  But I believe it has been addressed in our society in various laws already placed on the books (and continues to be address in the nooks and crannies of our society where it still exists in some form), and should no longer be a political issue to beat each other over the head.  It's a done deal.

Now, about female health care and birth control, that's a completely different issue....

Monday, June 4, 2012

Obama Vs Romney: The Race Ahead

It certainly feels like the race for President 2012 has taken a definite turn over the last 3 or 4 days.  With the bad unemployment numbers released on Friday, the continuing fears about Europe, and the dismal performance of the stock market, you get the feeling that Romney now has the electoral momentum on his side.

After a long primary season in which Romney kept plugging along like the Little Blue Engine That Could, despite being constantly challenged by new candidates throwing themselves at him like Japanese kamikazes, Romney has emerged victorious and, while slightly scarred, seemingly in good shape.  He's raising money in truckloads, and it's now projected that he'll raise more than Obama for the general election, primarily because of the banks and corporations backing him instead of the President.

He now also seems much more in control of his image than he was in the primaries, and he is using that to good effect.  He is subtly molding his image as the competent manager and leader, the saavy businessman, the faithful husband and devoted father, and the devout and godly Mormon.  And while it is true that the Obama campaign has not yet trained their 'big guns' on him in ads, what they have done has largely fallen flat, such as with the attacks of Bain Capital.

Obama won in 2008 for largely four reasons: (1) he was able to ride a general sense of revulsion with 8 years of Bush/Republican rule;  (2) the economy crashed smack in the middle of the fall campaign, and Obama naturally benefited as the candidate of the party out of power;  (3) McCain picked Sarah Palin as the Veep,  someone whom many in his own party had serious doubts about; and (4) Obama was able to effectively project an aura of hope and change around himself.

None of these four reasons any longer exist.  Obama is now the one in charge, who can be held responsible for whatever gripes people have about the economy (and there are many), and Romney is almost surely going to pick someone as VP who will be seen as competent and acceptable.

In other words, despite the fact that there is a certain edge that comes with incumbency and that Obama is perceived as largely successful in foreign policy, it seems that he will now have an uphill climb to the finish line in November.

Everyone is saying that the three fall debates will play a big role in deciding the election.  What will most likely happen is that neither man will stumble badly in those debates (both Obama and Romney seem to be very capable in the debate format), and therefore other factors already mentioned will play a larger role.

We as Americans are fortunate that both Obama and Romney are smart, well-educated, capable, experienced, moral, and pragmatically moderate politicians.  Although the fringe of the right-wing has tried to portray Obama as an alien and foreigner to America, and while the left-wing will try to paint Romney as the candidate of the 1%, both of these men are responsible and capable Americans.  And so, while I definitely favor President Obama, my guess is that the nation will be in basically good hands with either of them.

It's the paralyzing dysfunction in the Congress, and the neanderthal Supreme Court that worries me more.