We Don’t Need No Damn Ethics…Or Cities

As the Indiana General Assembly continues its assault on the goose that lays the state’s golden eggs–aka Indianapolis–members also demonstrate their utter lack of concern for ethical government behavior–state or municipal.

According to the Indianapolis Star, State Senator Jack Sandlin is proposing to void an Indianapolis ethics ordinance that prohibits a county chairperson from doing business with the city. Sandlin’s bill would allow a city employee to serve as both the county party chair and an employee, despite the rather obvious potential for conflicts of interest. 

It just so happens Senate Bill 415 would benefit Cindy Mowery, one of four people who have filed to become chair of the Marion County Republican Party.

Welcome to Indiana, where any pesky ethics law that promises to erect a barrier to problematic behavior can be eliminated by your political buddies!

The legislature’s war on municipal ethics is just one aspect of its constant assault on local control and urban life. There’s a reason that, most years, out-migration in Indiana exceeds  in-migration, and we routinely lose the young people we’ve paid to educate in our universities.

A recent discussion with my youngest son is–unfortunately–illustrative.

My son grew up in Indianapolis, attended college in Chicago, then traveled & worked in Japan. He fell in love with an Indiana woman, and (somewhat reluctantly) returned home. As he tells it, he  was an urban kid who loved cities, and initially, he didn’t see much promise of a vibrant urban life in Indianapolis. But that changed as Indianapolis changed. After living and practicing law in Chicago, he saw the promise of a great quality of life and a reasonable cost of living.  (Needless to say, this made his mother very happy.)

He bought a house in the Old Northside neighborhood, had a family. He and his wife work downtown, their children have attended excellent public schools, they have a wide circle of friends and neighbors with whom they enjoy the urban amenities Indianapolis offers.

So why–as they near college age–is he urging his children to leave Indiana?

He says that, while Indianapolis still has many great things going for it, its future—and especially the future it might be able to offer his children—looks far less rosy,  thanks to the culture of the state. As he says,

Even modest efforts to improve the quality of residents’ lives is threatened by a hostile General Assembly and radicalized state electorate. In most places, cities enjoy a measure of local control, or “home rule.”  Not Indianapolis — at least not today… 

Indiana’s Republicans have gerrymandered electoral districts, with predictable effects on Indiana’s politics. It turned a “conservative” state into something else entirely; the party of “limited government” has become the party of “intrusive central control.” Republican legislators have stripped (or sought to strip) Indianapolis voters of the right to decide quintessentially local matters: to decide how much in local taxes it can raise to provide essential services, to elect local judges, to decide questions of educational funding for public schools, and most recently, even to regulate local matters like zoning, landlord-tenant relations and the issuance of gun permits. None of these limits are placed on rural, largely white counties; only on Marion County (Indianapolis).

My kids are approaching college-age, and I am encouraging them to leave Indiana. Why?

Because I don’t know what life holds for them. I don’t know if they will be fortunate, healthy, and financially secure; or whether they will be dealt setbacks that might make them need assistance or the support and protection of local government.  What I do know is that I want them to find a place—a community—that cares for all its people, not just the wealthy, and not just white people.  Which is why I am strongly encouraging my kids to find universities outside of Indiana and, thereafter, to find a place where people care for each other more than we do in this state. 

 I chose Indianapolis for a quality of life that is, piece by piece, being eliminated as the Indiana General Assembly decides that city folk can’t be trusted to govern themselves or to invest in people or a better quality of place. 

Ultimately, I want my kids to find a place that cares for its people, even if doing so costs a little more.  I want them to live in a place where their vote over purely local affairs matters at least as much as the vote of a rural Trump-loving farmer—and, importantly, where the politics are not animated so much by white grievance. 

Unfortunately, that place isn’t Indiana.

 

 

 

Don’t Rest In Peace

A witticism attributed to Mark Twain has always resonated with me. (I tend to be bitchy.) Twain is quoted as saying “I’ve never wished for a man’s death, but I’ve read several obituaries with pleasure.”

Precisely my reaction when I learned of Rush Limbaugh’s demise.

There has been no dearth of columns/obituaries marking the death of this truly horrible man, and ordinarily I wouldn’t bother to add to their number–had I not been in the middle of The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee, and had I not come across this article from Vox.

I referred to The Sum of Us a few days ago, reporting on Michelle Goldberg’s column describing the book. I can now attest to its importance; McGhee paints an absolutely devastating–and overwhelmingly documented–picture of the ways in which racial animus has hurt not just the Black and brown objects of that animus, but everyone else. Racism, as she amply illustrates, is why Americans “can’t have nice things,” the none-too-veiled reason for the country’s disinvestment in public goods and refusal to construct an adequate social safety net.

Limbaugh, of course, was one of the loudest and most effective purveyors of that racism–along with generous amounts of misogyny, homophobia and Christian Nationalism.

Which brings me to the Vox article, which traces the considerable role played by “Christian” radio stations in abetting Limbaugh’s rise. The article reminds readers that Limbaugh “didn’t emerge from a vacuum.” He and his toxic message were part of a “Christian-based radio ecosystem” that promoted his message and allowed it to thrive.

The late Rush Limbaugh’s far-reaching and toxic impact on conservative America and the Republican party is well-known and well-documented. Still, there’s one aspect of his legacy, specifically his cultural dominance in the 1990s, that’s difficult to convey in the post-internet era: Limbaugh’s pivotal role in the ascension of conservative talk radio and the pivotal role that conservative radio played in emboldening modern conservative populism.

For many years throughout the Clinton era, Limbaugh’s daily radio program, The Rush Limbaugh Show, was synonymous with conservative political media and part of a larger burgeoning conservative radio ecosystem. The show, which aired for three hours each afternoon across America, began syndicating nationally in 1988 — incidentally the same year that famed evangelist minister Billy Graham delivered the benediction for both the Republican and Democratic national conventions. If you can’t imagine that happening today, it’s due in large part to the political polarization Limbaugh himself helped engender. In fact, Graham’s brand of evangelical Christianity spread across many of the same airwaves that also aired Limbaugh’s brand of toxic conservative bigotry.

That radio ecosystem also featured Dr. James Dobson’s daily Focus on the Family spots,  promoting “pro-life,” creationist, and anti-gay political opinions. Dobson was then the head of the Family Research Council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center classified as an extremist group.

It was within this pervasive atmosphere of pumped-up, aggressively combative evangelism and overtly polarizing political messages that Rush Limbaugh gained popularity. His show was another piece of the rapidly coalescing image of America’s new conservative — one in which Limbaugh’s lack of Christian empathy somehow became a feature, not a bug, of the modern conservative movement.

For at least three decades, Limbaugh and his ilk have been the public face of conservative “Christianity.”  It took a long time for those I consider to be authentic Christians to speak out–to publicly reject the hateful and aggressive politicized version of the religion that was repelling young people and Americans of good will. Those dissenting voices have become stronger, but whether they can counter the appeal of the White supremacy/Trumpian version of Christianity remains to be seen.

As the Vox article makes clear, the effect of Christian conservative radio on America’s political discourse has been profound– well before the 2016 election, the format played a huge role in shifting the views of once-centrist Republicans toward the far right. As the author notes, “Many of us haven’t listened to Rush Limbaugh in decades, but we’re all still feeling his influence daily, like it or not.”

His voice will most definitely not be missed.

 

The Appeal Of Extremism

There was a meme going around on Facebook a couple of weeks back to the effect that conspiracy theories appeal especially to people who don’t understand how the government works. (It was phrased in a more pithy manner, but that was the gist.)

That insight was consistent with research on people attracted to various kinds of fundamentalism: religious, political or even nutritional. In a complicated world, there is something very attractive–even restful–about a world cleanly divided into spheres of black and white. This is good, that is bad. This is what God (or nature) demands, and that will send you down the road to hell (or kill you before your time).

No agonizing involved. Just respect the bright line–and try to get the government make your neighbors do likewise.

The attraction of those bright lines– good versus bad, right versus wrong, no shades of gray–goes a long way toward explaining the political figures who go from one extreme to the other. Those of us of a “certain age” still remember the members of the so-called intelligencia who were enamored of communism, then–after being “mugged by reality”–became just as devotedly and rigidly rightwing. These are folks who desperately need the clarity that comes with a very oversimplified view of reality.

The Guardian recently reported on a study confirming the nature of that appeal. It found that people who embrace extremist attitudes tend to perform poorly on complex mental tasks.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge sought to evaluate whether cognitive disposition – differences in how information is perceived and processed – sculpt ideological world-views such as political, nationalistic and dogmatic beliefs, beyond the impact of traditional demographic factors like age, race and gender.

According to the study published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, researchers found that ideological attitudes “mirrored cognitive decision-making.”

A key finding was that people with extremist attitudes tended to think about the world in black and white terms, and struggled with complex tasks that required intricate mental steps, said lead author Dr Leor Zmigrod at Cambridge’s department of psychology.

“Individuals or brains that struggle to process and plan complex action sequences may be more drawn to extreme ideologies, or authoritarian ideologies that simplify the world,” she said.

The researchers found that participants in the study who were prone to dogmatism – which they defined as “stuck in their ways and relatively resistant to credible evidence” actually had problems with processing evidence even at a perceptual level.

For most people, through most of human history, life was comparatively simple. Not easy, certainly, but far less complicated than it can be in the environment we now inhabit. Constant changes in technology challenge us. Globalization and vastly improved methods of communication confront homogeneous communities with the radical diversity of the earth’s population. The Internet constantly highlights the vastness of human knowledge–and reminds each of us that our individual ability to understand the world is pretty limited.

And of course, we are constantly reminded of the threats we face: climate change, pollution, terrorism (foreign and domestic), assaults on democratic governance, evidence of multiple institutions that aren’t functioning properly…It’s all pretty daunting, and making sense of the connections and contradictions is more daunting still, even for people emotionally and intellectually able to deal with the degree of ambiguity and complexity involved.

That said, we also need to recognize that the inability to deal with complexity isn’t some sort of IQ test–it appears to be the result of an interplay between personality and intellect. We can’t simply shrug and attribute acceptance of QAnon and the like to stupidity, or substandard education. We desperately need to understand the nature of this inability to accept and process complexity–the reasons for some people’s resistance to life’s inescapable ambiguities.

We especially need to figure out how to address the seductive appeal of dangerous simplicities–including the siren calls of conspiracy theories.

 

 

 

City And State

In the wake of John Kerry’s 2004 electoral defeat,  the editors of The Stranger, an alternative newspaper published in Seattle, published a wonderful rant. The editors looked at the red and blue election map, and pointed to the (visually obvious) fact that even in the reddest states, cities were bright blue. America’s urban areas comprised what they called an “urban archipelago” that reflected political values and attitudes vastly different from those of rural America.

Academic researchers have since confirmed that observation: virtually every major city (100,000 plus) in the United States of America has a political culture starkly different from that of the less populous areas surrounding it. As I wrote in a post back then, the problem is, the people who live in densely populated cities have demonstrably less political voice than their country cousins. Most states don’t really have “one person one vote” and the result is that rural voters are vastly overrepresented. State taxes paid by city dwellers go disproportionately to rural areas, and the people who populate state legislatures  have gerrymandered voting districts to keep things that way.

Representative government wasn’t genuinely representative then, and in 2021, the situation hasn’t improved.

Earlier this month, Governing Magazine noted the same problem, in an article titled “Why Cities Have More People But Less Clout.”

Gun violence is on the rise in Philadelphia. In January, homicides jumped by a third over the same month in 2020, which itself had been the deadliest in three decades. Non-fatal shootings increased last month by 71 percent.

City officials, wanting to address the issue, have repeatedly come up with gun control measures they believe will save lives. Their efforts, however, have gone nowhere. Pennsylvania, along with more than 40 other states, blocks localities from passing their own firearms regulations.

Last fall, Philadelphia sued the state to end its gun pre-emption law. “If the Pennsylvania General Assembly refuses to do anything to help us protect our citizens,” said Darrell Clarke, the president of the Philadelphia city council, “then they should not have the right to prevent us from taking the kinds of actions we know we need to keep our residents safe from harm.”

Good luck with that. Courts have repeatedly upheld Pennsylvania’s power to block local gun control laws. Across the country, states have consistently pre-empted localities on a broad range of issues, from minimum wage increases and paid sick leave requirements to bans on plastic bags or removal of Confederate monuments.

Sounds pretty familiar to us Hoosiers…

The article reports what most of us know–that the majority of the nation’s economic growth has been concentrated in major cities that are the primary economic engines of their states. You would think that would make them deserving of support– but state officials pretty consistently opt to keep money flowing from those cities to rural, less prosperous areas of the state. Cities send far more tax dollars to the state that they receive back in spending.

As cities are prospering (or at least were, before the pandemic and the great migration out of downtown offices), they have been moving in an increasingly progressive direction. Only three of the nation’s 25 largest cities have Republican mayors. Meanwhile, a majority of state legislatures are controlled by the GOP. That creates a disconnect that leads to frequent pre-emption, particularly in Republican states in the South, Southwest and Midwest.

It isn’t just a partisan political gap; the urban/rural divide “reflects and is reinforced by other overlapping differences, including cultural attitudes, education levels, class and race.”

Democrats can compete and win statewide in states including Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin — and now Arizona and Georgia — but they’re shut out of power at the legislative level in all those places. Pennsylvania falls into this category as well.

The article acknowledges the a long tradition of outstate resentment of the dominant city–a resentment made stronger by the partisan split.

“They don’t have any reason to take into account the interest of the urban population in making legislation, and they have a lot of interest in not doing so,” says Schragger, the UVA law professor. “Particularly on cultural issues and fiscal issues, it pays for these legislators to resist giving cities more home-rule powers, because their constituents tend to be opposed even to local policies that are contrary to national conservative positions.”

The article is further evidence of America’s undemocratic move to minority rule, buttressed by giving every state two senators, irrespective of population count (the recent Republican Senate majority, which refused to rein in Trump’s abuses after his first impeachment, was elected with 20 million fewer votes than the Democratic minority), and
by the anti-majoritarian operation of the Electoral College.

How we give America’s urban majority at least an equal say with its rural minority is an increasingly critical question.

 

Vouchers And Religious Discrimination

Can you stand one more rant about the un-American motives and consequences of school voucher programs?

I’ve been following a case that was filed last year in North Carolina. So far as I have been able to tell, it is still working its way through that state’s courts. The Raleigh News and Observer reported on the filing last July, noting that seven North Carolina parents had partially based their claim that program was unconstitutional on the fact that it provides funding to schools that engage in religious discrimination. 

The program has been controversial since it was launched in 2014. Supporters say it gives parents more choice in educating their children. Opponents say it siphons millions of tax dollars away from public schools each year and requires little accountability from private schools that receive the funds. 

The Complaint identified the parents as state taxpayers who have school-age children who can’t use the vouchers at certain private schools due to their religious beliefs, their identities or their sexual orientations, and the suit alleges that public funds are supporting schools “that divide communities on religious lines, disparage many North Carolinians’ faiths and identities, and coerce families into living under religious dictates.”

Another story, from the Citizen Times, documented the accuracy of those assertions.

In 2017, Elizabeth Meininger, a police officer in Fayetteville, went to enroll her two young children at Berean Baptist Academy, a local private school.

Elizabeth and her wife, Kate, liked Berean’s curriculum and felt its small class sizes could challenge their daughter and son, who seemed to be overlooked in their large county school system.

The Meiningers’ combined income qualified them for North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarships, a $4,200 public voucher they could put toward covering private school tuition. With the voucher, Berean was affordable — less than half the price of a non-religious private option like Fayetteville Academy.

Yet soon after Elizabeth and Kate started Berean’s application process, the school informed them it wouldn’t accept their children. According to Elizabeth, school officials said Berean only accepted Christian families and the Meiningers couldn’t be Christian if they were gay.

Elizabeth and Kate subsequently discovered that, every year, Berean took in hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars through the North Carolina voucher program. The paper further reported that of the eight schools that had received the most Opportunity Scholarship money last year, six had explicit policies against students or parents who are homosexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming.

It gets worse: Many of the schools taking taxpayer money use a “science” curriculum that teaches the earth was created six thousand years ago, in six days, by God. In science class.

In the 2019-2020 school year, North Carolina doled out $48 million in scholarships–money that would otherwise have been available for the state’s public school systems. The schools benefitting most from this largesse clearly feel no compunction to hide their discriminatory policies. According to the article, Berean took in $855,877 in vouchers in 2019, the second highest amount in the state, and as part of its published school policy, “factors in” students and families’ sexual orientation and gender identity.

Another religious school, Liberty Christian Academy, received $651,641 in 2019-20, the third-most in the state. The school lists “participating in, supporting, or condoning sexual immorality, homosexual activist, bisexual activity” as reason for denying or removing students. Yet another–Northwood Temple Academy– took in $500,000. Its website cites biblical passages supporting its anti-gay policies.

The tax dollars being sent to these discriminatory schools–dollars being used to indoctrinate American children into very unAmerican attitudes–come from all North Carolina’s citizens–including those who are Muslim, Jewish, and gay and transgender, despite the fact that few if any voucher schools will accept their children.

it’s hard to disagree with Craig White, a bisexual man who works at the Asheville-based Campaign for Southern Equality, who is quoted as saying  “I should have the right to see my tax dollars not go to an institution that labels me as an abomination.” 

The challenge is based on North Carolina’s state constitution. But even if this program doesn’t run afoul of that charter, it is terrible public policy.

Before we had reams of research showing that voucher programs do not improve academic outcomes, it may have been possible to justify support for vouchers as a mechanism allowing poor children to escape failing public schools. But not only have we seen that those children do no better–and often worse–academically, we have seen legislators substantially raise the income limits for participation. 

Welcome to the new “Christian” version of the old segregation academy…