Friday, September 23, 2011

What we could have done

That the band R.E.M.'s break-up and Troy Davis' highly controversial state mandated execution would have taken place on the same day is probably an interesting coincidence to no one but me. You see, it was at an R.E.M. concert during their "Monster" tour back in 1994 that I, as a high school student, first lifted a finger to take part in a political cause-- opposing the death penalty. Someone had a booth and a petition to sign, a mailing list to be on. While my parents appreciated my interest, I doubt they were too enthused about receiving periodic notices in the mail about the death penalty addressed to me for the following decade or so.

According to Gallup, in the year I attended that concert more Americans supported the death penalty than they had before (at least, back to when Gallup started polling on the question in 1936) or since. 80% answered "yes" to the question "Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?" whereas by last year the number had fallen to 64%. And Troy Davis was executed, presumably because the state of Georgia is where a good number of those who answer "yes" to the death penalty reside.

My opposition to the death penalty, and my reasoning for opposing it, hasn't changed since the day I signed that petition-- I still believe that we as a society gain nothing from it, and we risk losing something which should always be significant: the life of an innocent. The Innocence Project, which was founded in 1992 to examine the cases of imprisoned convicts using DNA testing, has exonerated seventeen convicts from death row in eleven states. Collectively, they served over two hundred years in prison for crimes they didn't commit.  But because they had not been executed (yet), it was possible to release them and allow them to have something of their previous lives back.  Nevertheless, this doesn't appear to be a compelling thought at all for many Americans. From another Gallup poll:
However, for many Americans, agreement with the assertion that innocent people have been put to death does not preclude simultaneous endorsement of the death penalty. A third of all Americans, 34%, believe an innocent person has been executed and at the same time support the death penalty. This is higher than the 23% who believe an innocent person has been executed and simultaneously oppose the death penalty.
This result is shocking to me. I had no idea that there were so many people who grant that innocent people get placed on death row and are eventually executed, but consider that acceptable collateral damage in order to put the guilty to death. Was Troy Davis one of those innocents who was sacrificed? Perhaps-- he professed his own innocence right up until the point of execution, and there's a range of concerns with the entire course of his case. Davis' race and the circumstances of his crime raise persistent questions about whether his case could have been decided fairly:

The finality of Mr. Davis’s sentence, and the outpouring of protest worldwide, leaves in its wake more than its share of questions — many that go beyond the facts of the case to encompass fundamental issues of capital punishment. Because Mark MacPhail, the Savannah, Ga., police officer he was convicted of killing in 1989, was white and Mr. Davis, above, was black, the progress of Mr. Davis’s case over two decades widened fault lines on the death penalty and, in particular, over the question of whether a black person in the South could be guaranteed the same justice as a white one. 
A New York Times editorial refers to a series of "grievous errors" and notes that over 630,000 letters pleading for clemency were delivered to the Georgia pardon and parole board to no avail, resulting in a "tragic miscarriage of justice."  Director of the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project Danny LeBoeuf condemned the outcome in no uncertain terms: “The execution of an innocent man crystallizes in the most sickening way the vast systemic injustices that plague our death penalty system."

So here's my question: what was the rush? The alternative to putting Troy Davis to death wasn't to let him go free, to send him on his way with his old clothes back and money for cab fare. If he had not been executed we would have had the rest of his life, with him sitting patiently in prison, to decide to put him to a more obviously justified death. To analyze the circumstances of his accusation in a way that doesn't provoke every human rights organization in the country, as well as death penalty supporters like former F.B.I. director William Sessions, to proclaim the injustice of it. Someone like me who opposes the death penalty outright would still not be satisfied, but we could do more to make sure that the people we put to death are obviously deserving of it. Could we not? Is that not in the death penalty supporter's best interests, the single best defense of hanging onto such a practice?

Because after all, America is rather a stand-out in the fact that we do hang onto it. Not only does the U.S. have more of its population incarcerated than any other country in the world, we're also willing to kill them whereas no other Western democracy will do so. Just speaking for myself, I would rather die than spend the rest of my life in prison. If the options are a life sentence or the death penalty, I would opt for the death penalty without hesitation. But Troy Davis is not me, and he was not given an option. Maybe he would have preferred to spend the duration of a life sentence (or as long as it would have taken) working to demonstrate his own innocence...and maybe he would have succeeded.  I don't see what we would have had to lose by giving him the chance, and we would've had a greater system of justice and national dignity to gain.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Limbaugh's big fat complete lack of self-awareness

Rush Limbaugh takes yet another poke at Michelle Obama for being fat. A commenter on Dispatches called Nemo writes
This meme on the right that Michelle Obama is overweight is utterly bizarre to me. A glance at her should serve to debunk it. I can’t see another explanation for its persistence than racism — they have to be thinking, even if unconsciously, something like “Black women are fat. Michelle Obama is black. Therefore, Michelle Obama is fat. QED.”
I had been busy noting that Limbaugh is no Kate Moss himself, and if he had a "No Fat Chicks" t-shirt it would have to come with a few X's in front of the size "Large." Ed Brayton remarks
Really, Rush? You’re going to do weight jokes? You might notice that I don’t ever poke fun at someone’s weight. You know why? Because I’m overweight myself and I’d look like an idiot and a hypocrite if I did it. That seems not to matter to Limbaugh.
No, I expect it doesn't. But the reason for that isn't quite clear. It could be because Limbaugh's a racist, and therefore the charge of hypocrisy is dismissed as irrelevant or (more likely) doesn't even register. But I think plain ol' misogyny is closer to the truth. Insulting a woman's appearance, especially by calling her fat, is the most basic, intellectually lazy things you can do to dismiss her. And it only seems relevant if you consider it important for her appearance to conform to your Limbaugh pretty clearly does. Michael Heath points out that this tendency extends back in history beyond the Obama White House:
Mr. Limbaugh criticized Bill & Hillary Clinton’s daughter Chelsea’s physical appearance when she was a 13 year old child. While he’s clearly a racist, his misogyny goes back decades.
“Socks is the White House cat. But did you know there is also a White House dog?”
— while holding up a photograph of 13-year-old Chelsea Clinton on his 1993 television show
And Sadie Morrison is not even necessarily convinced that Limbaugh thinks Obama is fat:
I don’t think that he necessarily views Michelle Obama as overweight; as previously mentioned, slurs regarding physical appearance are almost always the first offense directed against women by misogynists whether or not such slurs match any sense of objective reality.
And if the woman in question is so thin that there's no way you can call her fat without looking like a lunatic, you say she's horse-faced. For the dedicated yet lazy, there is always a physical put-down handy.  I would hazard a guess that this is part of the reason why some conservatives like to extol the beauty of Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann to the point of creepiness-- it's defensive tactic against the same sort of attacks they would be hurling against left-leaning female politicians. They have not taken into consideration the idea that a woman's appearance as the most important thing about her might be a premise their opponents have discarded.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Why Rick Santorum is wrong

The title of this post might sound a little obvious to most who might read it-- Rick Santorum, wrong? Perish the thought! But I think it's important to take a look at why he was wrong, specifically, when he said this in an interview with Piers Morgan:
I think just because we disagree on public policy, which is what the debate has been about — which is marriage — doesn’t mean that it’s bigotry. Just because you follow a moral code that teaches that something’s wrong doesn’t mean that — are you suggesting that the Bible and that the Catholic Church is bigoted? If that’s what you believe, fine. [...] Well, I shouldn’t say — not fine. I don’t think it’s fine at all. I think that is contrary to both what we’ve seen in 2,000 years of human history and Western civilization, and trying to redefine something that has been — that is — seen as wrong…I think is in itself an act of bigotry.
Okay, let's unpack. Santorum is saying that the Bible and Catholic Church cannot be bigoted because of "2,000 years of human history and Western civilization," which could mean one of two things:
  1. Over the past 2,000 years, homosexuals have justified the belief that homosexuality is immoral, and therefore that belief is not based in bigotry.
  2. The Bible and the Catholic Church have maintained that homosexuality is immoral for 2,000 years, and therefore can't be wrong. 
What is bigotry? A good definition would be: a determination to ascribe to a group of individuals a characteristic(s) which is/are not logically required by the characteristic(s) which they do actually have in common. This would include the belief that black people are untrustworthy, which is particularly noxious considering that skin color is a circumstance of birth, and we tend to be most offended by the insistence that a people must share some undesirable trait based on something they were born with and can do nothing (or almost nothing) about. But a trait doesn't have to be a circumstance of birth in order for someone to form bigoted beliefs about it. If I said that people who like to play Dungeons and Dragons are idiots, that would be a bigoted claim on my part because there is no evidence at all to show that there's a particular attraction between that game and people of low intellectual caliber, let alone a necessary connection. If there was a connection but it wasn't absolute, then I would still be guilty of making a false generalization. But the more I insist that individuals in a group must share a negative quality because of something else that they have in common, the more offensive I become because of how much more unfounded my insulting statements clearly are.  

If the first statement-- that time has justified the belief that homosexuality is immoral-- was Santorum's intended meaning, would it be a good defense? Maybe...if it were true. If, over a period of 2,000 years, we could observe that sexual intercourse between people of the same gender resulted in something catastrophic every time, it might be fair to say that it's immoral. Say, if sex between two women caused nearby buildings to explode. That would be pretty bad. We would have good reason to tell those lesbians to cut that out, and think poorly of them if they refused to.* But of course, there is no foundation for such a belief. Sexual intercourse between two people of the same gender does not inevitably result in anything unfortunate happening. And what's more, the Bible and the Catholic Church (I'm going to continue grouping them that way in spite of the distinctions a person might want to point out, because it's part of Santorum's claim) do not claim that homosexuality is immoral based on any such observation, over 2,000 years or two months. Rather they claim it by fiat on God's part, which strongly suggests that this is not what Santorum meant.

So let's assume that Santorum is in fact saying that the sheer length of time that the Bible and the Catholic Church have been claiming that homosexuality is immoral demonstrate that it is.  That the Bible has been claiming it for that duration isn't exactly impressive-- it's a book, albeit one with a large number of translations and interpretations which nonetheless haven't much altered the statements regarding the morality of sex between two men or two women. That the Church has maintained that homosexuality is immoral for that period of time, on the other hand, demonstrates....what, exactly? That the Church is tenacious in this belief. Does its tenacity demonstrate the truth of the belief? Not remotely. The claim that the sheer amount of time that you've held onto something demonstrates its worth or validity is an appeal to tradition, and it's a fallacy.

So we see that the allegation that the Bible and the Catholic Church are bigoted for calling gays immoral is not rendered unfounded by the reality of homosexual intercourse being immoral or the fact that they've been making this claim for a very long time. Santorum's last objection is to "trying to redefine something that has been seen as wrong." In other words, he objects to people saying that a previously held claim of something being immoral is mistaken. Really? So is there no such thing as moral progress-- society did not advance in any way by the willingness of people being willing to say loudly and clearly that slavery, for example, was wrong? After all, there was (and still is, in some parts of the world) a long-standing belief to the contrary. When miscegenation was legalized in the United States, there was definitely still a widespread and firmly held belief that that was wrong. Would Santorum argue that this "redefinition of something that has been seen as wrong" was therefore a bad thing?  I doubt it.

Finally, there is Santorum's allegation that believing that the Bible and Catholic Church's insistence that homosexuality is immoral constitutes bigotry is itself a form of bigotry. Well, Rick, show us your work please...because that doesn't hold by the definition of bigotry I'm using, or indeed any definition I know. For a start, neither the Bible nor the Catholic Church are a group of people. The Bible certainly isn't, and the Church is an institution with identifiable agreed-upon doctrines. It might be mistaken to say that the Church is bigoted, but that could not be a bigoted statement in itself simply by definition. And there is no association being made which could constitute correlating an unfounded trait with a unifying trait-- nobody is saying that the Bible and the Catholic Church say _______, therefore they must consider homosexuality immoral and are therefore bigoted. They say openly that homosexuality is immoral, and that is being evaluated as bigotry.  Rightly so, I have argued, whether homosexuality is considered a circumstance of birth or not.

* If they agreed, however, and became sexually inactive or were willing to have sex with men instead, they would not cease to be lesbians. I know this. I am not at all combating the notion that sexual orientation is a matter of identity, not behavior. I am simply for the purposes of this post treating it as a behavior in order to point out that negative associations on that basis still qualify as bigotry.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


What's the point of having a dealbreaker list that you share with the world?

I'm mulling this question over in my head after my blogroll linked to a post called "Dealbreakers" on Big Think. It was inspired by a post with the same name at Pandagon, which was in turn loosely based on 1) a series of essays at GOOD, and 2) an essay commenting on the dust-up at Gizmodo after one of their editors posted a rather harsh account of her disappointment upon inadvertently hooking up with a Magic: The Gathering champion via OkCupid.

The essays at GOOD are partly about the central factors in the end of relationships. That's not a dealbreaker to me. A dealbreaker, I think, is a relationship preventative. Something you say from the outset: "I will not date someone who is/has/does ________."

A moral dealbreaker, I can see...the sort of thing you believe should be a dealbreaker for everyone, because racists/homophobes/Republicans/Democrats/libertarians/pro-lifers/pro-choicers/whatever deserve no love. But what's the point of declaring to the world that you don't want a man who likes bicycling, has a beard, doesn't like cats, is into sports, and so on? Is society trying to come to some sort of consensus on what the sexes want from each other, and desperately requires your input?

I suppose part of what bugs/amuses/saddens me is the knowledge that in the abstract, questions like "Would you be okay with a man/woman who has/is/does (insert turn-off here) if he/she also has/is/does (insert multiple turn-ons here)?" are incredibly difficult if not impossible to know the answer to. Sure, you might think you know...but when that person actually comes along, you might surprise yourself. You might even find yourself smitten with a Republican!  And what will happen then-- will the world end? I doubt it.

Yeah, it's okay to have preferences. Far be it from me to suggest otherwise, or that these should be set aside lightly.  I'm not even necessarily saying it's wrong to make those preferences into principles and adopt a my-way-or-the-highway attitude about them (which is what constructing a dealbreaker list amounts to, really).  But really, do the geeks/bearded men/bicyclists/Magic players/dog-lovers of the world need to know that you'd rather swallow a bug than date one of their kind? Does such an announcement accomplish anything aside from making the announcer look rather naive, petty, and callous all at once?  I think so. Which is why I can't figure out why it's such a popular thing to do.

*scratches head*