Picard Returns, Just In Time…

I am a huge fan of Star Trek (and good science-fiction more generally), and my favorite of all the various iterations of Gene Rodenberry’s vision was The Next Generation. So you can imagine my reaction when I read that Patrick Stewart aka Jean-Luc Picard will return in a new series that will follow Captain Picard’s post-Enterprise life.

There are numerous theories, articles and books that attempt to explain the long-term devotion of Star Trek fans. Most of them boil down to a recognition that its vision of the future speaks to our human aspiration to become better–better people in a better, more equal, fairer society–a society in which human ingenuity focuses on creating social structures that facilitate what Aristotle called “human flourishing.”

Whatever the appeal, there are reasons to applaud Jean-Luc’s return. Right now, Americans desperately need high-profile models of wise adulthood–figures who demonstrate what honorable, intelligent, mature behavior looks like, so that we don’t begin to regard as normal the childish and bizarre behaviors emanating from the Oval Office.

Think about the character of Jean-Luc Picard. He is temperate, waits to gather evidence before coming to a conclusion, and thinks before he (eloquently) speaks.  He is highly disciplined, and in control of his emotions. He gives credit where credit is due. He encourages, supports and clearly cares about his subordinates. He never stoops to name-calling–and never blames others for his own errors or mistakes.

He demonstrates strength and resolve, but prudently avoids unnecessary confrontations, and considers the use of force a last resort.

As one might expect in a series about a fictional starship, Captain Picard is intimately familiar with the science and technology of his ship, but he also appreciates and is familiar with the humanities: he’s an amateur archeologist, a history buff and a fan of Shakespeare.

Picard’s crew isn’t just multi-ethnic, it is multi-species, and he meets the inhabitants of new planets with respect and efforts at mutual understanding.

Most of all, Picard is shown as a steadfast defender of the rule of law–especially the Federation’s Prime Directive–even when adherence to the law requires very tough decisions. In short, he’s a civilized adult.  Accordingly, there is no aspect of Jean-Luc Picard’s character that is not a direct reproof to, and critique of, Donald Trump.

Think of Picard as super-ego, and Trump as id.

Trump could not be more unlike Stewart’s Picard. To call him undisciplined is an understatement. If things go well, he claims the credit; if things demonstrably don’t go well, he blames others. It’s never his fault. He picks totally unnecessary fights. And far from being educated, he is profoundly, embarrassingly ignorant–not just of his ship (of state) and the rules governing it, but also of history, geography, law, science, public policy and (evidently, judging from his tweets) the English language.

Trump’s “crew” is all white; he consistently demonstrates his contempt for black and brown Americans with racist and demeaning rhetoric. I would accuse him of purposely trying to undermine the rule of law, but I seriously doubt that he understands what that is. Evidence is irrelevant to his “agenda,” which is based entirely upon his various resentments and biases.

I have friends who binge-watch old episodes of The West Wing and long for a President Bartlett. I watch Star Trek reruns and pine for a leader like Picard. Unfortunately, Bartlett and Picard are fictional characters, while Trump is all too depressingly real.

That said, the return of Jean-Luc Picard–fictional though he may be– will give us another example of an ethical adult, another role-model to remind us that the moral and intellectual midgets currently infesting our governing institutions are anomalies who cannot be allowed to set the standard.

We need that.

 

The Proof Of The Pudding…Er, Cake

What was that line from Jaws? He’s baaaack….

Remember the Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding, and took his case all the way to the Supreme Court? Although headlines suggested he’d won his case, the Court actually punted, because it found that the initial consideration of his argument by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had denied him “the neutral and respectful consideration” to which he was entitled.

That case thus failed to set a precedent or resolve the issue. So guess what–Mr. “sincere religious belief” is back, this time for refusing to bake a cake for a transgender customer.

Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo., on Tuesday filed another federal lawsuit against the state alleging religious discrimination.

This time, the cake at the center of the controversy was not for a wedding. In June 2017, Colorado lawyer Autumn Scardina called Masterpiece Cakeshop to request a custom cake that was blue on the outside and pink on the inside.

The occasion, Scardina told the bakery’s employees, was to celebrate her birthday, as well as the seventh anniversary of the day she had come out as transgender.

Masterpiece Cakeshop ultimately refused Scardina’s order on religious grounds.

The Colorado Civil Rights Commission once again found Phillips guilty of discrimination, and once again, he has filed a federal lawsuit claiming religious discrimination.

I have no idea whether the transgender customer was part of an effort to test Phillips’ assertion–in the context of the original case–that he served everyone, and only objected to using his cake-baking “art” to celebrate occasions he “sincerely” believed to be sinful. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Leaving aside the (strong) legal justification for civil rights laws, here’s what strikes me about Masterpiece Cakeshop, the sequel.

As I’ve previously noted, if I owned a bakery, and I sincerely didn’t want to bake a cake for a customer (for any reason–maybe the customer has just been a pain in the derriere), I would simply say something like, “Gee, Mrs. Smith, I am so backed up with orders that I can’t take any more until after the date you need the cake,” or “I’m so sorry, Mr. Jones, but I’m short-handed right now…”

In other words, there are lots of ways you can refrain from “participating in sin” without issuing a self-righteous sermon to justify the abstention.

People in business who want to stay in business avoid unnecessarily pissing people off–especially people who are part of communities that are likely to take offense and stop patronizing your store. (A couple of years ago, a bakery not far from my house did refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple, and told them the refusal was based upon the owners’ religious beliefs. This is a gay-friendly neighborhood, the couple shared their experience, and six months later the bakery was no longer in business.)

Even if the religious belief that requires you to refuse baking a cake is sincere, I know of no religious doctrine that requires you to be a horse’s ass about the refusal. If your religious beliefs require you to turn away business by lecturing your hapless would-be customers about the wages of sin, you have no business being in business. (And you probably won’t be for long.)

Forgive my cynicism, but Mr. Phillips sounds far more interested in theatrically demeaning LGBTQ folks and being a tool for right-wing legal activists than in running a bakery.

Religion, Social Justice And Medicare For All

These are difficult days for genuinely religious folks–the ones who understand their theologies to require ethical and loving behaviors.

The 2016 election highlighted the glaring hypocrisies of Evangelical Trump supporters; more recently, it’s Catholics who are cringing. In Pennsylvania, a grand jury found the Church had concealed 70 years of sexual abuse by over 300 priests. Here in Indianapolis, the administration of a Catholic high school learned that a longtime, much-loved guidance counselor is in a same-sex marriage, and demanded that she divorce her wife or resign.

Not exactly ethical or loving behaviors.

On the other hand, dozens of local Catholics, including alumni of that high school, are publicly and vigorously supporting the counselor, and others are prominent advocates for social justice, and for programs to help the poor.

Local Catholics are also prominent advocates of establishing a “Medicare for All” chapter in Indianapolis.

In an essay for the National Catholic Reporter, law professor Fran Quigley argues eloquently that faith communities–including his– need to make a moral case for universal health care.

Mark Trover of Indiana had a job and access to health insurance, but the premiums and co-pays were too high for him to afford. A doctor had prescribed medicine for his dangerously high blood pressure, but the cost was high and Trover stopped filling the prescription — right up until the time he suffered a stroke that left him permanently disabled.

Karyn Wofford of Georgia has type 1 diabetes, and has often been forced to ration the insulin she needs to survive. The cost of the medicine has risen over 1,000 percent in recent years, and the 29 year-old knows there are many other Americans who have suffered and even died from diabetic ketoacidosis because they could not afford the medicine. “Having access to diabetic supplies and insulin, to feel okay when I wake up in the morning — that’s my dream,” she wrote for the T1 International blog.

These stories represent the status quo of U.S. health care. Even after the Affordable Care Act, there are over 28 million people in our country living completely without health coverage, a group disproportionately made up of people of color. Among those who do have insurance coverage, nearly a third are enrolled in high-deductible insurance plans that can force them to skip filling prescriptions or go without other necessary care.

These stories–and the millions of Americans who have similar ones–are shameful reminders that the United States lags behind virtually all other industrialized countries when it comes to the health of our citizens. Ironically, we are far more religious than citizens of countries that run circles around us when it comes to health care.

As Fran documents, however, religious leaders are finally mobilizing:

In response to the mean-spirited and fiscally self-sabotaging efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act last year, faith groups raised their collective voice, and to great effect. Dozens of denominations and organizations from a wide range of faith traditions issued joint statements, mobilized their members, and conducted a dramatic Capitol Hill vigil. They brought a morally powerful foundation to the resistance to Affordable Care Act repeal efforts.

As a March 2017 letter signed by leaders of 40 faith organizations said, “The scriptures of the Abrahamic traditions of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, as well as the sacred teachings of other faiths, understand that addressing the general welfare of the nation includes giving particular attention to people experiencing poverty or sickness.”

That shared mandate compelled us as people of faith to act to preserve the Affordable Care Act, which has expanded care to millions of Americans who needed it. Now, those same sacred teachings require us to speak out with just as much urgency to fully repair the gaps left behind even after the act is preserved.

All major religious traditions recognize a responsibility to provide for the poor and the sick–and while the ACA is an important step in the right direction, it falls far short of being universal. What is needed is a single-payer system like those in other first-world countries.

Legislation packaged as “Expanded and Improved Medicare for All” has over 120 co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives and support from a growing number of senators, reflecting polls that show a majority of Americans support a single-payer system.

But the will of the people does not always translate into changed policies, especially when heavily financed lobbyists and campaign contributors from insurance and pharmaceutical companies block the path. That is where the faith community comes in. The economic argument in favor of a single-payer, universal health care system is undeniably powerful, but the moral case for health care as a human right is even stronger. The faith community stands in the ideal place to advance that moral argument.

I encourage those reading this to click through and read the article in its entirety, or even one of my earlier posts, which comes to the same conclusion. I especially encourage you to attend the inaugural meeting of the Medicare for All Group next Thursday, August 23d, to be held at 6:30 at Indianapolis’ First Friends Church.

This effort is a timely reminder that sincere “people of faith”–all faiths–are working for social justice. They don’t make as much noise as the theocrats and hypocrites, and they aren’t as newsworthy, but these efforts remind us that there are also a lot of good people in those pews.

Corruption And The Piety Party

Over the past few years, surveys have documented the growth of the so-called “nones”–Americans who have abandoned religion. Some are atheists or agnostics, others simply see religion as irrelevant to their lives. For many, that irrelevancy is the result of distaste for the hypocrisy and amoral behaviors of many self-described “pious” people.

I thought about the distance between ostentatious religiosity and ethical behavior when I read a Dana Milbank column in the Washington Post, titled “The Unimpeachable Integrity of the Republicans.”The GOP, as we all know, has become the piety party–Vice-President Mike Pence is its perfect, smarmy embodiment.

Milbank wasn’t addressing Republican faux religiosity–he was just marveling at the efforts of deeply dishonest Representatives to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein. As he noted, tongue-in-cheek, the charges are serious: inappropriately redacting lines in documents turned over to Congress by the Justice Department, and explaining the legal basis upon which the department is declining to produce others. Horrific behavior! I may swoon…

Redacting the price of a conference table is clearly a far more serious offense than those committed by other members of the Trump Team: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has been accused by former associates of stealing roughly $120 million; former EPA Chief Pruitt got a bargain condo rental from a lobbyist’s wife, used his job to find work for his wife and had taxpayers buy him everything from a soundproof phone booth to  moisturizing lotion.

Who else doesn’t merit impeachment?

Not the former national security adviser who admitted to lying to the FBI,not the former White House staff secretary accused of domestic violence, not the presidential son-in-law who had White House meetings with his family’s lenders, not the housing secretary accused of potentially helping his son’s business, not the many Cabinet secretaries who traveled for pleasure at taxpayer expense, not the former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director who bought tobacco stock while in office.

And certainly not the president, whose most recent emolument bath was poured by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince: Bookings by his highness’s entourage spurred a spike in the quarterly revenue at the Trump International Hotel in Manhattan.

None of these “public servants” generated the indignation being focused on Rosenstein the Redactor.

Milbank helpfully described the pious paragons so determined to expel this scofflaw from governance–the same Republicans “so above reproach” that one of their first votes was an attempt to kill the House ethics office. He began by identifying some who are regretfully  no longer available:

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), an obvious candidate, resignedover his use of public funds to settle a sexual-harassment lawsuit.

Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.), another ideal choice, resigned after word got out of a sexual-harassment settlement with a staffer the married congressman called his “soul mate.”

Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) also can’t be of use. He resignedover allegations that he urged his mistress to seek an abortion.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) likewise won’t be available. He quit when a former aide alleged that he offered her $5 millionto have his child as a surrogate.

But never fear–as Milbank demonstrates, the GOP has a truly impressive bench.

There’s Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), who remains “tentatively available” despite his arrest this week for insider trading, along with the five other House Republicans who invested in the same company but haven’t been charged yet. There’s also Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), “assuming he has free time”–he’s battling allegations that he covered up sexual misconduct when coaching at Ohio State.

Others who could judge Rosenstein: Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.), who pleaded guilty to assault after body-slamming a reporter; Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who is retiring after a naked photograph of him leaked online; and Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), who is under investigation by the FBI over the alleged use of campaign funds for his children’s tuition, shopping trips and airfare for a pet rabbit.

Nunes himself is battling allegations that he got favorable terms on a winery investment and used political contributions to pay for basketball tickets and Las Vegas trips.

Eighty-one percent of white Evangelicals voted for Trump, and research suggests their support for him and his band of thugs and thieves remains strong. No wonder people who actually care about ethics and morality are repelled by “faith.”

Watch Your Language

I think it was Tallyrand who said “speech was given to man to conceal his thoughts.” Political spinmeisters, advertising executives and faux scholars are proving him prescient; they have perfected the use of language to label and deceive, rather than communicate.

The following paragraph is typical (no link, as I have forgotten where I got it):

The Sanders-led progressive movement has successfully tugged the party to the left, bringing ideas that seemed fringe in 2016 to the center of the mainstream Democratic agenda. Many of the party’s presidential hopefuls now embrace some of the biggest planks of the Sanders platform, from Medicare for All to legalizing marijuana to rejecting corporate donations.

A genuine Leftist–vanishingly rare in the U.S.–would laugh at the suggestion that universal health care (once proposed by Richard Nixon), sane drug policies based upon sound medical research, and campaign finance reform (championed by John McCain) are somehow “far Left.” But that’s the state of political discourse in America these days, where ideology and animus trump both evidence and the careful use of language.

Peter the Citizen, an expert on social welfare programs to whom I’ve previously cited, recently sent me a good example of the way it works. (Peter is hardly a bleeding heart liberal–he worked in the Reagan White House. He just believes that research projects should be designed to find answers to questions, not manipulated in order to confirm pre-existing biases.) The issue was whether recipients of certain social programs should be required to work in order to qualify for benefits.

He wrote:”I believe work requirements can be a useful policy tool, but they must be reasonable, realistic, and based on sound evidence.  Too much of the debate today ignores these factors and is based on misreading the credible evidence that exists (i.e., the random assignment experiments of welfare-to-work programs) or, even worse, relies on studies with fundamentally flawed methods.

“How effective are work requirements?,” a paper by Angela Rachidi and Robert Doar of the American Enterprise Institute, came in for special scorn. The authors purport to find evidence that “largely supports” extending work requirements to non-cash programs like SNAP  and Medicaid, and they argue that critics of work requirements have “misread” and “misrepresented” this research.

As Peter notes,

It turns out that it is Angela and Robert who have misread the evidence.  They mischaracterize the arguments of “critics” of work requirements, misinterpret the results of random assignment experiments, and then over-generalize from a limited number of demonstration projects to make claims about work requirement proposals that would operate on a much larger scale, for different programs and populations, and with different levels of funding.

Peter’s paper critiquing this “research,” can be found here.

Peter also referenced an article titled “They’re the think tank pushing for welfare work requirements. Republicans say they’re experts. Economists call it ‘junk science,’” by Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post. In the article, Dewey described the newfound influence of a think-tank named Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) (given the name–the label– I assume its an offshoot of that well-known organization “Grandmas and Kittens for Good Government.”)

But hey–they are saying what Paul Ryan and the Koch Brothers want to hear, so they must be legit, right?

House Republicans – including [Speaker] Ryan, who was introduced to the group in 2016 through Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback – have repeatedly proffered the FGA’s analysis as proof that most Americans support strict work rules in welfare programs and that such rules boost income and employment.

While the FGA’s “studies” have support among some politicians, their work is not seen as credible by serious observers.  To understand why, it is informative to compare their methodological approach for making claims about the impacts of work requirements (and other welfare reform policies) with generally accepted criteria for assessing the soundness of an evaluation.

In 1997, Peter co-authored a monograph with Doug Besharov and Peter Rossi – Evaluating Welfare Reform: A Guide for Scholars and Practitioners – which described and explained those “generally accepted criteria.”  Peter applied the criteria the to the FGA’s “research,”  and developed the following “report card”: “How Do the Foundation for Government Accountability’s Evaluations of Welfare Reform Measure Up? A Report Card (Hint: The FGA Fails)”: https://mlwiseman.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Evaluating-Welfare-Reform.pdf

In 1984, Orwell introduced the concept of “Newspeak,” language imposed by the governing Party. The purpose of Newspeak was to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits “proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, (the Party ruling Oceana)”– and simultaneously to make all other modes of thought impossible.

The “alternative facts,” of Trumpworld, politicians’ increasing use of language to obfuscate and label rather than inform, and the bastardized “research” of zealots and ideologues are creating an environment in which their version of Newspeak displaces actual conversation and distorts reality.

We. need to watch our language.