The Significance of Mike Pence

Published: The Good Men Project (July 16, 2016)

As The New York Times recently reported, there are an awful lot of social issues in which Donald Trump doesn’t now or didn’t in the past line up with his new vice presidential running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. These range from abortion and gay rights to whether smoking kills people. Considering that Trump has flip-flopped on a number of issues in this election cycle alone, it may not seem particularly noteworthy that he has chosen a veep whose views are so out of whack with what he used to believe.

Nevertheless, the Pence selection forces us to confront a very unsettling reality about how Trump would govern as president – namely, that he would move to the hard right, with all of the base hatreds to be found in that movement.

Think about it. When a presidential nominee chooses his or her running mate, they do so to benefit from the foremost assets that individual will bring to their ticket. When Barack Obama selected Joe Biden in 2008, it was because the latter’s 36 years of experience as a United States Senator was a great antidote to the charge that Obama himself was inexperienced; John McCain, by contrast, chose Sarah Palin because her youth and charisma would supercharge his flagging political brand; and Mitt Romney tapped Paul Ryan to solidify his credentials as a thoughtful conservative alternative to the Obama administration’s policies.

By focusing his presidential campaign on hoary stereotypes about Mexicans and Muslims, Trump has effectively declared that he would marginalize individuals within those groups if he ever rose to power. Now that he chosen Pence to be his vice president, he has said the exact same thing about homosexuals and women (at least those who want to control their own bodies).

Pence, on the other hand, only brings his longstanding reputation as a right-wing firebrand. Sure, he has a decade of experience in the House of Representatives and a single term as Governor of Indiana, so he fulfills the “political experience” requirement that Trump declared would be such an important consideration for him (though not more so than many of the other options he had considered). That said, Pence is best known to the political world for his support for Indiana’s notorious and toxic so-called Religious Freedom law, which allowed business owners in his state to deny service to LGBTQ individuals. Beyond that, Pence developed a reputation as a particularly rabid opponent of abortion rights, not only leading the crusade to defund Planned Parenthood but even comparing American abortion practices to the September 11th terrorist attacks.

It is important to note that when I bring up these stances from Pence’s past, I’m not cherry-picking random positions that he has happened to take. These policies are central to Pence’s political brand, just as much as Trump’s political brand depends on his opposition to illegal immigration and free trade policies. While politicians will obviously need to take a wide range of policy positions throughout their careers, they usually select a handful that ultimately define them. For George W. Bush, it was tax cuts and (later on) the war in Iraq; for Obama, it’s been health care reform and economic stimulus; and for Pence, it’s been his opposition to the rights of homosexuals and women.

This speaks volumes not only about the type of campaign that Trump is prepared to wage, but the manner in which he would plan on governing. Whatever his past positions may have been, Trump has now aligned himself with the hard right, a movement that in turn depends on asserting the superiority of white conservative Christians over the rest of us. By focusing his presidential campaign on hoary stereotypes about Mexicans and Muslims, Trump has effectively declared that he would marginalize individuals within those groups if he ever rose to power. Now that he chosen Pence to be his vice president, he has said the exact same thing about homosexuals and women (at least those who want to control their own bodies).

Needless to say, this clears up any confusion as to whether the Trump who used to be pro-choice and pro-gay rights bears any resemblance to the man now running for president. Moreover, it establishes that the stakes in this presidential election couldn’t be any higher. Whatever else you might think of Trump’s (incredibly inconsistent) policy positions, the main message of his campaign is that he and his team are driven by a multitude of hatreds. If you vote for Trump-Pence, you are electing a ticket that would roll back all of the progress America has made in the past few years at becoming a more pluralistic society.

There can be no doubt what we’re up against.

Not all lives matter: The perverse hypocrisy of “pro-life” gun enthusiasts

Published: Salon (October 10, 2015), The Daily Dot (October 7, 2015)

In a recent episode of The Daily Show, host Trevor Noah jokingly compared Republican politicians’ pro-life stance on abortion with their blasé attitude toward the increasing number of American deaths caused by gun violence: “They just need to have a superhero’s dedication to life. Because right now, they’re more like comic book collectors: Human life only matters until you take it out of the package, and then there’s nothing left.”

Here, Noah actually raised a valid point about why conservative opposition to gun control is so hypocritical. At a time when being pro-life is associated with opposing a woman’s right to control her own body, why is it so hard to convince many of those same people that the lives of gun victims matter just as much?

We can start with the most prominent recent shooting—namely, the killing spree at Umpqua Community College in Oregon that left nine dead and more than 20 injured. The fatalities included:

  • Lucero Alcaraz, a 19-year-old aspiring pediatric nurse
  • Treven Taylor Anspach, a 20-year-old athlete who was described as being “part of the fire and EMS family”
  • Rebecka Ann Carnes, an 18-year-old studying to become a dental assistant
  • Quinn Glen Cooper, an 18-year-old who loved martial arts and was shot during his fourth day of college
  • Kim Dietz, a 59-year-old who worked with her husband at a local vineyard and whose daughter attended the college
  • Lucas Eibel, an 18-year-old who was studying chemistry
  • Jason Dale Johnson, a 34-year-old whose family described him as “proud to be a Christian”
  • Lawrence Levine, a 67-year-old assistant professor of English who was teaching in the classroom that was attacked
  • Sarena Dawn Moore, a 44-year-old business student

Aside from the Oregon shooting, there have been other gun-related incidents this week that deserve attention. Take McKayla Dyer, an 8-year-old girl in Tennessee who was shot to death by an 11-year-old bully when she refused to let him pet her dog. Her neighbor, Chastity Arwood, when interviewed later, noted that “guns should be under lock and key if you have a child, nowhere in arms reach of a child.” There is also Jordan Schott, who was shot by an unidentified suspect on the campus of Texas Southern University, and Ethan Schmidt, a professor at Delta State University who was the victim of a shooting that occurred there less than four weeks ago.

This is just a short list, of course. So far, the year 2015 has brought about 45 shootings on school grounds, 17 of which were on college campuses. Even more sobering, there have been 294 mass shootings this year, causing 380 deaths and more than 1,000 injuries. If you broaden this to include gun-related deaths, the number is 9,959 so far in 2015. As Linda Qiu of the Washington Post put it, “That’s a grand total of 301,797 firearm-related deaths in the past decade, compared to 71 deaths from domestic acts of terrorism.”

The question here, then, is why are the lives of the unborn weighed so much more heavily than the lives of shooting victims? Why are the same presidential candidates who have largely backed the defunding of Planned Parenthood willing to dismiss shootings by saying “Stuff happens,” like Jeb Bush? Ben Carson went even further: During a Facebook Q&A conducted on Monday, the former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon claimed that he “never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.”

I suspect there is a twofold answer here. The first can be found in our political culture: For better or worse, abortion has been a hot-button political issue in America since Roe v. Wade declared that women had a constitutional right to make decisions about their own bodies back in 1973. Thanks to the disproportionate influence of the religious right in the Republican Party, any GOP presidential candidate who wishes to be nominated in the years since needs to take an outspoken stance against abortion in order to be considered politically viable.

At the same time, the equally disproportionate influence of pro-gun organizations like the NRA guarantees that any politician seeking the Republican nomination needs to avoid being perceived as too friendly with gun control advocates who want to strengthen regulations. While none of this is intended to pick on the Republican Party specifically (after all, Democrats are just as beholden to special interest groups), it does illustrate the formula that makes such hypocrisy possible: In American politics, the need to be consistent about valuing “life” matters less than the need to balance various ideological priorities within one’s own partisan organization.

The other problem, though, is that not enough attention is paid to the lives and stories of the victims lost during shooting tragedies. Occasionally there will be a viral campaign to honor a particularly conspicuous act of heroism (see: the $700,000 raised online to help pay for the medical bills of Chris Mintz, an Iraq war veteran who risked his life saving others during the Umpqua Community College shooting), but in general, the focus is placed on analyzing the shooter and picking apart their motives. Because the question of gun control is rightly brought up whenever these shootings occur (which is far too often), there is an understandably political tone to the debate surrounding these events.

That said, the debate can obscure the underlying human tragedy, making it easy to dismiss the lives lost as statistics or—if you oppose gun regulation—as even a nuisance, one to be shuffled away as part of the natural tragedy of human existence rather than as lives as worthy of protection as any other.

This poses something of a challenge to anyone who wants to explain to the anti-gun control crowd why this issue matters so much. Until you develop a visceral empathy for the victims of these shootings—whether they’re the nine fatalities at an Oregon community college or an 8-year-old girl in Tennessee being victimized by a local bully—it’s hard to appreciate why this issue is so frustrating for comedians like Trevor Noah or infuriating to activists on the ground.

If you truly believe that these lives matter, then you should want the government to do everything it can to protect people who are dying in fully preventable ways—and that has to include after they’re born.


Mississippi Anti-Bloomberg Law: Complete Hypocrisy

Published: mic (March 21, 2013)

I was reluctant to use the same Thomas Jefferson quote twice in less than two weeks, but because the governor of Mississippi missed his golden opportunity to mention it, I simply had to post it again:

“The error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.”

This is cited in regard to the “Anti-Bloomberg Law” that was just passed in the Magnolia State, in part as a reaction to the movement set afoot by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to ban the sale of large, sugary drinks. According to the newly signed statute, counties, districts, and towns will have no authority to regulate portion sizes in foods or beverages.

“It simply is not the role of the government to micro-regulate citizens’ dietary decisions,” Governor Phil Bryant explained. “The responsibility for one’s personal health depends on individual choices about a proper diet and appropriate exercise.”

While there is an immediate temptation among civil libertarians to simply praise the principles in Bryant’s statement, it’s worth noting that his words were rather narrow in their scope. He didn’t say that it was wrong for the government to have any role in deciding what citizens do to their own bodies, which is the broader philosophical premise upon which any opposition to dietary regulations must be connected if it is to carry intellectual weight. Instead he focused simply on one specific manifestation of that larger issue — i.e., food and beverage regulation — without delving at all into the deeper Jeffersonian logic that motivated his state’s new policy.

The reason for this, of course, is that the leaders of Mississippi wouldn’t take too kindly to a full application of the Jeffersonianism embodied in the earlier quote. After all, this is the same government that is trying to shut down its state’s last remaining abortion clinic, explicitly bans same sex marriage, has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, due in large part due to its active prosecution of the war on drugs, and only ratified the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery last month. These are not the policies of a state that agrees with Jefferson’s observation about the state needing to stay out of “acts of the body.”

This hypocrisy is hardly limited to Mississippi. Mayor Bloomberg, for all of his faults, has been one of the nation’s most outspoken advocates of gay rights, spearheading the successful effort to legalize homosexual marriage in his own state and personally presiding over New York City’s first gay wedding. When advancing his cause, Bloomberg has very often used similarly Jeffersonian arguments as Bryant … but then flouted their implications on matters like drug policy, anti-smoking laws, and of course attempts to regulate fast food.

The sad thing is that these hypocrisies aren’t unique to Bryant and Bloomberg; they are, in fact, the rule among most politicians. It is one of the great weaknesses of our current political culture that statesmen from all sides — Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, socialists — too often espouse a panoply of ideas without ever seriously scrutinizing the ideological underpinnings needed to justify them. Like Orwellian sheep, the habit is to bleat certain platitudes with passion and vigor, regardless of whether the ideas become paradoxical at crucial points. It is a habit that has significantly diminished the quality of our public discourse … and, as citizens from New York City to Mississippi can attest, we all pay a price for it.

I leave you with another Jeffersonian quote:

“The care of every man’s soul belongs to himself. But what if he neglect the care of it? Well what if he neglect the care of his health or his estate, which would more nearly relate to the state. Will the magistrate make a law that he not be poor or sick? Laws provide against injury from others; but not from ourselves. God himself will not save men against their wills.”

Why Tom Head and Todd Akin Contribute to the Dumbing of America

Published: PolicyMic (August 24, 2012)

It is true that a nation which practices censorship cannot remain free. To this axiom, though, I would add that a society which doesn’t respond to inflammatory stupidity with universal contempt cannot remain safe for reasoned discussion, as recent political discussion clearly demonstrates.

Over the last week, the Republican Party has provided us with two test cases for that principle. First, there was Senate nominee Todd Akin of Missouri, who claimed that in instances of “legitimate rape” a woman’s body would not allow her to become pregnant. While common sense should be enough to undermine this assertion, those in doubt can always turn to the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, which reports that a single act of rape has a 5% chance of resulting in pregnancy among victims aged 12 to 45 who aren’t on birth control. This number increases to 30% if the assault occurs one or two days prior to ovulation.

That said, although Akin was quickly denounced by GOP luminaries – from party chairmen and congressmen to the presidential and vice presidential candidates themselves – amongst the people of his state, he still has a slight lead over his opponent, Senator Claire McCaskill While a majority of those voters have made it clear that they don’t agree with his comments, as of the moment they would still prefer putting him in power over casting their ballot for a Democrat. (It is a sign of the degree to which we have become psychologically entrenched in the two-party system that the prospect of finding a viable third-party alternative, which has happened before in Senate races, isn’t even being seriously considered.)

Now we have an elected county judge in Texas, Tom Head, who in a recent radio broadcast predicted that violence would break out if President Barack Obama is re-elected:

“In this political climate and financial climate, what is the very worst thing that could happen right now? Obama gets back in the White House. No. God forbid,” he began. “He is going to make the United States Congress and he’s going to make the Constitution irrelevant. He’s got his czars in place that don’t answer to anybody.”

After that, Head declared that Obama would “try to give the sovereignty of the United States away to the United Nations,” leading to more than just “riots here and there. I’m talking Lexington, Concord, take up arms, get rid of the dictator.”

It should go without saying that such incendiary rhetoric is morally abhorrent. Indeed, given the tempestuousness of our current political climate (to say nothing of last year’s shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords), there is less excuse than ever for suggesting that such violence is acceptable. Unfortunately, while the vast majority of conservatives are capable of vehemently disagreeing with Obama’s policies without resorting to hysterics and zealotry, the extreme right-wing is afflicted with such severe ideological myopia that they find it impossible to perceive Obama’s presidency in anything but the most irrationally hysterical terms.

And make no mistake about it, reason is not on their side. Head’s fear of Obama’s “czars” was long ago disproved by, which pointed out not only that the term “czar” is a media appellation rather than an official designation, but that George W. Bush had far more “czars” than his Democratic successor.

The same is true of his argument that Obama wishes to subvert the Constitution, one based on a timeworn demagogical canard debunked in books like Frank Bourgin’s classic The Great Challenge and my own PolicyMic editorial on the subject.

The remainder of Head’s assertions, meanwhile, can be disregarded using the basic source-checking skills one is taught as a college undergraduate – after all, his claims that Obama will make Congress “irrelevant” and turn us over to the “United Nations” are entirely based on “executive orders” and other alleged administration documents that Head is conveniently unable to produce.

One of my favorite historians, Richard Hofstadter, made perhaps the most prescient observation about this paranoid style of American politics in his acclaimed 1964 essay on the subject:

“The paranoid spokesman, sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization… he does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention.”

The only hopeful signs in all of this are that (a) despite their violent rhetoric, the extremists are usually like most other bullies in that they’re all bluster and no bite, and (b) established thinkers on both the left and right still overwhelmingly denounce their ideas.

The bad news, though, is that the contempt with which the extremists are being greeted has been far from universal. Millions of Missourians are still willing to cast their ballots for Todd Akin, while countless right-wingers are flocking to message boards and newspaper “Letters to the Editor” sections to support Tom Head. What we must remember is that it only takes a handful of such nuts, or even just one of them, to suddenly make American politics a frightening and dangerous place.

In the meantime, they will continue making our political debate a whole lot dumber.

The Republican War on Women

Published: PolicyMic (March 22, 2012)

Is it fair to claim that the Republican Party is waging a “war on women?”

Let’s look at the facts. Although the phrase in question only regained its political fashionability within the last few months, the sad truth is that the Republican Party’s hostility to women’s rights traces back much longer than that. The days when Senator Margaret Chase Smith electrified Congress with her eloquence and sharp logic subsided long ago; in their place is the party whose much-heralded “Reagan Revolution” was ushered in by a former California governor who proudly made good on his 1980 presidential campaign promise to quash the Equal Rights Amendment.

That spirit is still evident today. With four examples from 2012 alone, one can see it:

– Rush Limbaugh’s reference to Sandra Fluke, and by implication any woman who supports federal guarantees of insurance coverage for female contraception, as being “a slut” and “a prostitute” for supposedly wanting other people to pay for her sex (Limbaugh initially refused to apologize but changed his tune when advertisers began to pull out of his program).

– The passage of a Texas law requiring women to undergo an ultrasound before receiving an abortion, one accompanied by tentative counterparts in Virginia and Pennsylvania.

– The proposal in Wisconsin of a particularly misogynistic law that would brand single mothers as child abusers for not being married, one put forward by a legislator who later admitted that he opposed divorce for any reason, even arguing that women in abusive relationships should just remember what they used to love about their husbands and “re-find those reasons and get back to why they got married in the first place.”

– The fact that the field of Republican presidential candidates includes: a man who wants to eliminate funding for Title X programs that would fund Planned Parenthood (sans abortion procedures) and help poor women receive everything from cancer screenings and pap smears to birth control and wellness checkups, a man who has based a large part of his condemnation of Obama’s contraception insurance mandate on the grounds that “[sex] is supposed to be within marriage” and birth control is “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be,” a man who voted against the Family and Medical Leave Act, and a man who says victims of sexual harassment “can’t escape some responsibility for the problem” by not just quitting their jobs.

Facts such as these dominate the public image of the Republican Party today, and they can’t be scrubbed out simply because they’re justified by sympathetic female cultural reactionaries, be they commentators like Phyllis Schlafly and Ann Coulter or politicians like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. On the one hand, it is quite hyperbolic to classify all of this as a literal “war on women,” since that term more appropriately applies to the extreme atrocities facing the unfortunate female residents of nations like Afghanistan, Iran, and the Congo, even though it’s worth noting that America – unlike nations such as Great Britain, Israel, and Germany – has never had a female head of state. At the same time, the hyperbole is one that Republicans have brought upon themselves. By opposing policies that will allow women full control over their own bodies, sexual choices, marital statuses, and workplace rights, they deny them the ability to fully control their own lives.

This makes me pine for the days of feminism. Not the militant caricature that was given a deliberately pejorative connotation by the likes of Rush Limbaugh (who, among other things, coined the phrase “feminazis”), but the feminism that simply insists that people shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate against others because of biological differences (in this case related to gender) or attempt to impose their personal cultural views regarding sex on those who don’t share them. That brand of feminism is very much needed today. As Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler put it best, “feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings.”

On Supporting Abortion Rights

A new bill proposed by Pennsylvania Representative Kathy Rapp would require any woman seeking an abortion to first undergo an ultrasound. During this procedure, the doctor would be forced to put the view screen in her field of vision so she could see the fetus and observe its heartbeat. Although she’d have the right to close her eyes, there is no doubt that this ordeal would still put her through an exceptional amount of psychological and emotional stress.Then again, perhaps she should be grateful that the people trying to diminish her ability to make lucid choices about other parts of her body are at least leaving her with unquestioned sovereignty over her eyelids.All questions regarding the legality of abortion ultimately revolve around whether aborting a fetus is an act of murder; after all, abortion should obviously be prohibited if it constitutes an act of homicide, while it is entirely justifiable if it doesn’t constitute the taking of a human life. Unfortunately, the debate as to when life begins still rages on among scientists, with prominent figures in that community taking both sides of the question. Indeed, a 2009 Pew Poll found that 52% of scientists identified as liberal (who, according to another Pew Poll taken that year, support abortion rights 70% to 23%), 35% as moderate (pro-choice by 55% to 37%), and 9% as conservative (anti-abortion by 63% to 30%). For those who worked specifically in biology and medicine, 58% self-labeled as Democrats (pro-choice 60% to 31%), 31% as Independents (pro-choice 47% to 44%), and 6% as Republicans (anti-abortion by 63% to 32%).

In the absence of a scientific consensus as to life’s inception, a free government based on the concept of individual rights must respect each woman’s liberty to use her own judgment should an unwanted pregnancy occur. While other people in a woman’s life certainly have the right to try to influence her decision – through moral persuasion, a practical analysis of alternatives, or yes, even an ultrasound procedure – the state should not have the authority to force any of those influences upon her. Barry Goldwater, one of the modern Republican Party’s foundational figures, explained it best when he observed that despite personally opposing abortion, “in a pluralistic society the issue is not ours to decide alone.”

Unfortunately, this issue has heavy religious overtones, which raises passions and causes drastic schisms in perspectives. The aforementioned Pew Poll found that only 28% of Americans whose religious attendance was weekly or more support abortion rights, compared to 53% whose attendance was monthly/yearly and 64% for those whose attendance was seldom/never. Positions also varied wildly among different religious groups, with white evangelical Protestants being the least likely to support abortion rights (23%), Jews being the most likely to do so (76%), and those without any religious affiliation ranking second highest (68%). In short, while religious views are hardly the sole factor that determines outlooks on abortion, religion undeniably provides emotional fuel for this fiery issue.

This brings us back to Kathy Rapp, who earlier this month defended a House Resolution that proclaimed 2012 to be “Year of the Bible” by insisting that “the Bible was instrumental in the founding of our country.” A few weeks earlier, she had even supported dedicating November 2011 as “King James Bible Heritage Month,” which Jews like me noticed excluded not only our co-religionists, but all other non-Christians. Of course, this is exactly what Rapp and other members of the Christian Right — including Pennsylvania’s own former Senator, presidential candidate Rick Santorum — intend to accomplish. By depicting America as a nation founded on the conservative values taught in their interpretations of Christianity, they can justify imposing their moral beliefs on those who don’t share them, be it by banning abortion, limiting female access to contraception, preventing homosexuals from marrying or serving in the military, or using public schools to promote their religious beliefs through teaching creationism or mandating school prayer. What liberals need to remind them is that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” to quote a treaty signed by President John Adams. If that doesn’t work, then they should respond by quoting Thomas Jefferson himself:

“Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights … Erecting the ‘wall of separation between church and state,’ therefore, is absolutely essential to a free society.”