All posts by Sheila

Pastoral versus Ideological Church and State

Speaking of religion, as we did yesterday, I’ve been mulling over a column by E.J. Dionne that I read a couple of weeks ago, because I think it has application to what I will (somewhat grandiosely) call the human condition.

Dionne is a Catholic, and he was examining the differences between the approach to that religion of two other Catholics–the Pope, and Steve Bannon.

Bannon believes that “the Judeo-Christian West is in a crisis.” He calls for a return of “the church militant” who will “fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity,” which threatens to “completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”

Persecuted? Puh-leese

Imagine you and three friends rent a house together. You all pay your shares of the rent, maintenance, utilities and food costs. One of your roommates is vegan, and insists that no food can be purchased or brought into the house that does not meet strict vegan requirements.

If you protest, saying that you are happy to keep your preferred foods separate, but that as an equal contributor to the household, you have a right to eat in accordance with your own dietary preferences, he whines that you are persecuting him.

Most of us would say that the roommate is being an unreasonable bully. Yet his argument is no different from that of the “Christians” who demand laws that privilege their beliefs while ignoring the rights of those whose beliefs differ.

Hemant Mehta over at The Friendly Atheist has a perfect example.

The Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) has a simple rule when it comes to reciting Christian prayers over the loudspeakers before football games: Don’t do it. It’s a fair policy considering it echoes what the U.S. Supreme Court said more than 16 years ago.

Last year, two Christian schools made it to the championship game, which would be played in a government-owned arena, the Citrus Bowl. The coach of one of the teams asked to say a prayer over the arena’s loudspeaker. Because the Citrus Bowl is a public facility, the FHSAA refused, and a Christian “defense” group sued. As Mehta noted,

The state didn’t do anything wrong. They didn’t block kids from praying. They merely said a public loudspeaker in a public facility couldn’t be used to broadcast prayer during a state event. This isn’t hard to understand unless you work for a Christian legal group, and your paycheck requires you to scream “Persecution!!!” three times a day…

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits government from endorsing or sponsoring religion. The Free Exercise Clause prohibits government from interfering with private religious expression. As Mehta quite accurately explained,

This game was overseen and managed by the state, even if Christian schools were involved, and that meant following state law. Both teams were obviously allowed to pray before the game, and after the game, and during halftime, and silently whenever the hell they want. They could pull a Tebow during the game if they wanted to. And because they were private schools, the coaches could legally join in.

The lawsuit argued that just giving the schools this expansive right to pray wasn’t enough:

By denying access to the loudspeaker,” the suit states, “the FHSAA denied the students, parents and fans in attendance the right to participate in the players’ prayer or to otherwise come together in prayer as one Christian community.”

Evidently, prayer only counts when it’s Christian, and done publicly and loudly.

A couple of quotes from representatives of Freedom From Religion are worth sharing:

Their right to their own religious prayer practice ends where the rights of non-adherents begin, especially as it involves students. To think that the government should be required to concede to this demand is arrogance of highest order. Would they sit still for Muslim or Hindu prayers over the loudspeakers should such a group field a championship football team? Would they want the government to effectively endorse those religions through such largess?

Cambridge Christian is within its rights to force prayers on students and parents over its own loudspeakers, but not at a state-sanctioned high school championship. We hope the court will see that this is not a matter of censorship, but the appropriate use of a public facility for a secular sporting event and not a religious revival.

The libertarian principle that underlies our Constitution gives each of us the right to “do our own thing,” so long as we do not thereby harm the person or property of others, and so long as we are willing to give an equal right to others.

Forbidding government from privileging certain religious beliefs over others is not censorship, and demanding respect for the “equal right” of all citizens (or roommates) is not “persecution.”

It’s time for religious bullies to get over themselves.

Can We Spell “Predatory”?

It’s all about the money…..

Jeff Sessions just reversed an Obama Administration policy that would have ended the Justice Department’s use of private prisons. Studies by the DOJ had concluded that private prisons compared “poorly” to prisons run by the government; one damning report found that privately run facilities were more dangerous than those run by the Bureau.

I’ve previously written about the numerous reasons privatized prisons are a bad idea. For one thing, companies running them actively engage in lobbying for harsh policies and longer sentences.intended to protect and grow their profits.

Government spending on corrections has soared since 1997 by 72 percent, up to $74 billion in 2007. And the private prison industry has raked in tremendous profits. Last year the two largest private prison companies — Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group — made over $2.9 billion in revenue.

According to the Justice Policy Institute, the three main private prison companies have contributed $835,514 to federal candidates and over $6 million to state politicians. They have also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on direct lobbying efforts.

The administration is also rolling back enforcement and monitoring of the numerous abuses by predatory for-profit colleges.  Trump has appointed Jerry Falwell Jr., of all people, to head up an effort to “deregulate” such institutions. “Deregulation” will  include new rules on teacher education, a new federal definition of a credit hour, and regulations that require consumer protections for students. Other targets include measures intended to ensure that these schools are actually providing students with marketable skills:  the gainful-employment regulation and the borrower-defense-to-repayment rule. Falwell has a clear conflict of interest, since any reduction in oversight will benefit his own university.

Meanwhile, Betsy DeVos continues to promote educational vouchers– what she euphemistically calls “school choice”–despite mounting evidence that they cheat both children and taxpayers. Doug Masson reports on the research (emphasis mine):

There has really never been strong evidence showing that voucher students do better than students attending traditional public schools. And, recent studies, show that they probably do worse. Given that traditional public schools add value to the community over and above the individual educations they provide to the students who attend, we should conclude and begin unwinding this voucher experiment. To improve public schools, we should look to systems in other countries that are outperforming ours and seek to emulate those things they are doing better…

Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading.

The next came from Louisiana where:

They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.

Finally, Ohio, where a study financed by the pro-voucher Waltons concluded, “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools.” Massachusetts seems to have a more successful program than Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio, but it is marked by “nonprofit public schools, open to all and accountable to public authorities. The less “private” that school choice programs are, the better they seem to work.”

In Indiana, the motivating impulse for voucher enthusiasts seems to be a combination of: a) undermining the influence of teachers’ unions; b) subsidizing the preferences of those who would want a private religious education; and c) providing access to that sweet, sweet education money to friends and well-wishers of voucher proponents.

There is overwhelming evidence that private prisons are a dangerous scam. Proprietary colleges rip off taxpayers while obscenely overcharging the students they fail to educate. Vouchers are a thinly-disguised subsidy for religious schools and a profit center for politically-connected “entrepreneurs.”

What’s that song from Cabaret? Money makes the world go ’round.

Welcome to Trumpville.

Scapegoating and Grandstanding

The question that has continued to mystify me is how any voter could look at Donald Trump and see anything but a pathetic and embarrassing wanna-be entirely unqualified for office.

So I was struck by this recent paragraph from Talking Points Memo.

People continue to marvel how a city-bred, godless libertine who was born to great wealth could become and remain the political avatar of small town and rural voters of middling means. The answer is simple. Despite all their differences, Trump meets his voters in a common perception (real or not) of being shunned, ignored and disrespected by ‘elites’. In short, his politics and his connection with his core voters is based on grievance. This is a profound and enduring connection. This part of his constituency likely amounts to only 25% or 30% of the electorate at most. But it is a powerful anchor on the right. His ability to emerge undamaged from an almost endless series of outrages and ridiculousnesses is based on this connection.

Grievance explains a good deal. We all encounter people who seem desperate for respect, for the esteem of others, but who seem wholly unaware of the qualities or behaviors that might earn them that esteem. And because they lack self-awareness, they double down on two behaviors in particular that mark them as insecure and resentful: scapegoating and grandstanding.

Trump is exhibit A.

The grandstanding is repellant and its dishonesty is obvious to people who actually know how the world works. When Trump takes credit for corporate hiring announcements, or good economic news–after a month in office–economists and savvy business people roll their eyes.   Boasts that his administration is a “well-oiled machine” are a gift to comedians.

Proclaiming that you know more than other people, blustering that you have the “best” words or mind or instincts or whatever, is evidence of desperation, not superiority. (I still remember the counsel of an older lawyer with whom I once worked; he used to say “If you are good at what you do, people will notice without your telling them.”)

The most accomplished people I know are also among the most modest.

The constant grandstanding is embarrassing and revelatory, but it isn’t nearly as dangerous as the scapegoating. It is Trump’s “blame game” that binds him to his base. People who are aggrieved, who feel cheated of the respect, success or status they believe is their due want someone to blame. The enduring appeal of white supremacists is their willingness to provide those villains and their enthusiastic demonizing of the “other”– black people, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, gays…

When bad things happen to these lost, insecure souls, it can never be their fault. It can never be because they erred, or failed. It is because of the perfidy of those Others.

Donald Trump is the poster boy for pointing fingers and deflecting blame–even before the fact.

As Phillip Rucker noted earlier this month in the Washington Post, 

President Trump appears to be laying the groundwork to preemptively shift blame for any future terrorist attack on U.S. soil from his administration to the federal judiciary, as well as to the media.

In recent tweets, Trump personally attacked James L. Robart, a U.S. district judge in Washington state, for putting “our country in such peril” with his ruling that temporarily blocked enforcement of the administration’s ban on all refugees as well as citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States.

“If something happens blame him and the court system. People pouring in. Bad!” Trump wrote in a tweet Sunday.

Trump thus confirms his supporters’ core conviction: If it’s good, they did it (and all by themselves).  If it’s “bad,” (one of those “best words”) it’s someone else’s fault.

 

 

“Alternative” Realities

Bizarre as he is, Donald Trump does embody the GOP’s longstanding effort to substitute fantasy for evidence, and to act on the basis of the former.  

Forbes Magazine recently reported that Republican lawmakers have buried a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, because the findings debunked their preferred  (fanciful) economic worldview.

The research study found absolutely no correlation between the the level of top tax rates and economic growth. The belief that taxing the rich slows economic growth is a key tenet of conservative economic theory, so rather than considering evidence contrary to that theory, Senate Republicans suppressed the report.

This has become the standard reaction of Republican lawmakers when inconvenient reality–facts, evidence, what your lying eyes tell you–conflicts with their preferred beliefs and/or the interests of their donors.

The question is: how long can a war on reality be maintained?

It isn’t just economics. An interesting article in a recent issue of the New York Times compared the anti-science assault of the new Trump Administration with a similar effort mounted by Stephen Harper, a previous Prime Minister of Canada.

I was surprised by the article, since Canadians seem so sane and reasonable in comparison to the United States. (I look rather longingly at Justin Trudeau…). Evidently, however, waging war on facts, evidence and empirical investigation are not solely an American phenomenon.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Less than a month into the Trump presidency, and the forecast for science seems ominous.

Scientists at federal agencies have been hit with gag orders preventing them from communicating their findings, or in some cases, attending scientific conferences. Social media accounts and websites have been censored, and at least one agency was asked to identify personnel who worked on climate policies. Now there are proposals for slashing research budgets and gutting funding that could affect the training of the next generation of scientists. To top it all off, President Trump’s cabinet nominees and senior advisers include many who are climate deniers or doubters.

Canadians experienced a similar assault on science a decade ago under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The author of the article, a Canadian scientist, shared the experience of that country’s scientific community in the hopes that it might prove helpful here. The parallels were striking:

Starting in 2007, shortly after Mr. Harper became prime minister, new rules were issued that prevented federal scientists from speaking freely with the media about their research without clearing it with public relations specialists or having an administrative “minder” accompany the scientists on interviews or to scientific conferences. More often, the government would simply deny permission for a scientist to speak with reporters if that person’s findings ran counter to Mr. Harper’s political agenda. Inquiries from journalists became mired in an obstinate bureaucracy, and media coverage of government climate research dropped 80 percent after the rules were imposed.

This censorship also had a chilling effect on scientific inquiry. A survey of federal Canadian scientists revealed that 90 percent felt they could not speak freely to the media about their work. If they were to speak up about science that affected public health or the environment, 86 percent felt that they would suffer retaliation. Nearly half of the scientists knew of specific cases of political interference hampering efforts to protect the public.

The article detailed the destruction of research libraries, and other “cost saving” measures. Research on pollution and environmental contaminants was de-funded;  monitoring stations were closed. Environmental protection laws were repealed.

Fearing the continued erosion of even the most basic protections for food inspection, water quality and human health, Canadian scientists filled Ottawa’s streets in the Death of Evidence march. That theatrical mock funeral procession became something of a cultural touchstone. It was a turning point that galvanized public opinion against Prime Minister Harper’s anti-science agenda. By the next election, Justin Trudeau’s center-left government swept in on a platform that put scientists’ right to speak and the promise of evidence-based decisions alongside job creation and economic growth.

In a very real sense, America’s political divisions are not between rational Republicans and Democrats, or conservatives and liberals. Our divisions are between people willing to examine evidence, value and trust expertise, and grapple with the complexities of modern life, and people who are unwilling or unable to do so–people frantic to avoid both ambiguity and evidence inconsistent with their religious or political fundamentalism.

A number of pundits have opined that the demonstrations and marches being held around the country will have little effect on political decision-making. The Canadian “Death of Evidence” march–and more recently, the “pussy hats” of the Women’s March–suggest otherwise.

Reason is an adaptive characteristic. It will prevail. Unfortunately, a lot of harm can be done in the interim.