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a few comments on the contraception and “religious freedom” argument underway

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I am following the argument between the Catholic Church and the Obama Administration over how Catholic hopsitals and other non-church Catholic institutions are to pay for contraception. It is a fascinating debate about religious freedom from government, health-care, contraception (which I must say I cannot believe we still fight over), but also the role of religion in government.

I am presuming, since the argument has been made by the Church that this is a religious freedom fight, that today’s compromise requiring insurance companies and not employers to cover the costs will resolve the issue. The Church has claimed this is not political, it is not about the services, it is about the Church’s freedom of conscience, and so this should just about wrap that problem up.

Anyway. There has been much written on this subject. And I wanted to share a few things that I have valued as I learned about the subject.

New York Times blogger Andrew RosenthalIn case you haven’t been paying attention – and I guess I wouldn’t blame you – the issue is this: The rule exempts religious institutions, like churches, but not religiously affiliated institutions, like Catholic hospitals, that serve the general public. Some social conservatives are calling this an unconscionableassault on religious freedom, since Catholic doctrine prohibits women from using artificial contraception. 
It’s pure election-year shenanigans, led by Republicans who want to make Mr. Obama seem godless. There are already 28 states with similar rules in place, and the Catholic Church continues to operate in all of them (last I checked, anyway).

Sarah Kliff (whose work on the Komen debacle and this issue has shown what modern internet journalism can be) at the Washington PostOutside the political punditry, most Catholics agree with the administration on the issue,” says one Obama campaign official, explaining the view that this could be a political win.
And a lot of this likely isn’t about Catholic voters at all.
Rather, it may well be about the demographics that are most supportive of this particular health reform provision: young voters and women. In the PRRI poll, both groups register support above 60 percent for the provision.

New York Times Opinion Page, Linda Greenhouse: These institutions, as well as Catholic universities – not seminaries, but colleges and universities whose doors are open to all – are full participants in the public square, receiving a steady stream of federal dollars. They assert – indeed, have earned – the right to the same benefits that flow to their secular peers. What they now claim is a right to special treatment: to conscience that trumps law.
But in fact, that is not a principle that our legal system embraces… 
In a 1990 decision, Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court disagreed. Even a sincere religious motivation, in the absence of some special circumstance like proof of government animus, does not merit exemption from a “valid and neutral law of general applicability,” the court held. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the opinion, which was joined by, among others, the notoriously left wing Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. 

Star Tribune Opinion Page. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, member of the Minnesota House.The church, with one hand, waves the bus of government through the intersection of Church and State, and into your choice of spouses; with the other hand it seeks to halt otherwise free access to contraceptive health care for its employees.
In lamenting the requirements for equal birth-control coverage for women, a spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops bewailed, “Government has entered the sanctuary.”
Is it ironic that this holy hand-wringing comes just as those same bishops seek to stand in your polling booth on the issue of marriage?

Daily Beast blogger David Frum:  If the audience is paying attention, for example, it will notice that Republicans are not proposing to allow employers and plans to refuse to cover blood transfusions if they conscientiously object to them (although there are religious groups that do). Or vaccinations (although there are individuals who conscientiously object to those as well). Or medicines derived from animal experimentation. (Ditto.)
No, Marco Rubio’s Religious Freedom Restoration bill provides for one conscientious exemption only: contraception and sterilization.
Which means it will be very hard if not impossible to persuade the target audience that this debate is not in fact about contraception. Everybody quite sure that’s a wise debate to have?

And finally, for TRC the worst part here is not the argument that the government is overreaching into areas where the government has no legal or moral right to be. The story is the opposite: the Catholic Church is once again attempting to insert itself from the pulpit into policy making. The Church can disregard modern science and the irrefutable preference for contraception all it wants. But it cannot keep our government from providing Catholics and non-Catholics with services it opposes.  The Church is opposing access to women’s birth control services, and that is a fight it is going to lose.

Mary Sanchez in the Chicago Tribune. The truth is, the desire to control, to assert one person’s view of morality over another’s choices, is coming from the other direction — from religious conservatives who see this as a skirmish in a new culture war. It’s being played that way because it’s politically expedient to do so in 2012, an election year.
The backlash is an effort to limit a women’s right to have access to health care, including the right to make decisions about reproduction. If that reminds you of the abortion issue, you’re not alone. That was the old cause. This is the new one. Access to contraception is the next target for religious conservatives bent on their version of morality trumping individual rights.
This isn’t primarily about the separation of church and state. Health care is the issue. It is a woman’s right to have access to contraception if she so chooses. And that means including it in prescription drug coverage.
And those “feminist allies” Buchanan talks about. Who are they?
When it comes to users of birth control, it’s nearly every woman in America. 

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Written by Christopher ZF

February 10, 2012 at 13:16

Behold! Ignorance in its purest form: Sen. Stacey Campfield

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I don’t live in Tennessee and their local politics is there own. But back in April, I posted about a piece of legislation that is being called “Don’t Say Gay.” I couldn’t help it. It is the kind of ignorant homophobic legislation that riles up the blood here at TRC. But then I pretty much forgot about it.

Until this week. When the author of that legislation, Mr. Stacey Campfield, gave an interview that is so ignorant, so homophobic, so racist, that I have to come back to it. For my own sanity.

So here is Sen. Campfield. He looks like a regular guy. And by his definition of regular, well, I guess he is. Here are some of the gems from his Sirius radio interview:

Most people realize that AIDS came from the homosexual community. It was one guy screwing a monkey, if I recall correctly, and then having sex with men. It was an airline pilot, if I recall.

My understanding is that it is virtually — not completely, but virtually — impossible to contract AIDS through heterosexual sex.

“A lot of people trying to gloss over and say it’s an every-person disease but really it’s just those high-risk people that are most likely to contract or spread that disease. The odds of a regular man getting it from a regular woman are very low,” he said.
We asked, “What do you mean by ‘regular?'”
He said, “someone who is not from Africa, someone who is not a homosexual, someone who is not an IV drug user, someone who is not sleeping with someone who is one of those things.”

What’s the average lifespan of a homosexual? it’s very short. Google it yourself.

So just to be clear, because clarity matters, according to Stacey Campfield, a regular person is not: African, gay, a drug user, or having sex with an African person, a gay person, or a drug user.

In an attempt to educate out of this nastiness, the wonderful bloger Abbie Smith at ERV, who is not a state Senator but a scientist studying molecular and biochemical evolution of HIV, actually gives some history and reality to the statements above. One note from Ms. Smith I wanted to highlight:

The virus was originally introduced into the homosexual community in the US via an unlucky founder event. However in the areas where HIV is an epidemic, and in the US present day, heterosexual women are the group hardest hit.

And because I’m worked up about this asshole, here are some other gems of ignorant hate, from the Huffington Post:

That bullying thing is the biggest lark out there.

[Homosexuality]  has not been proven that it is nature. It happens in nature, but so does beastiality That does not make it right or something we should be teaching in school.

Homosexuals represent about 2 to 3 percent of the population yet you look at television and plays and theaters, it’s 50 percent of the theaters, probably more than that, 50 percent of the theaters based on something about homosexuality.

This is the first time I have heard a straight guy decry the involvement of gays and lesbians in theater.

It’s not hard to see why the son of a bitch was refused service at a restaurant.

Written by Christopher ZF

January 31, 2012 at 11:52

Welcome to the Big-Time Ron Paul: You’re consistency is what disqualifies you.

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The line on Presidential Candidate and GOP Rep. Ron Paul is, essentially, ‘hey, I may not agree with him on everything, but at least he’s consistent.’ That’s it. Consistency. He’s consistent in his libertarian philosophy, so consistent that he wins supporters because he has backbone, people know where he stands, the man is, if nothing else, consistent.

But here’s the thing, people. Ron Paul is consistently BATSHIT CRAZY.

It’s one thing to be consistent in his ideals if his ideals are, you know, compassion and honesty, libertarian independence, etc. But there are reasons that human thinking is nuanced, and that complexity should be prized in our intellectual capacity. Shouldn’t we weigh individual circumstances and come to independent conclusions? Isn’t that what the human brain is capable of doing at its height, recognizing nuanced change and adapting our perceptions as circumstances demand? Thus we can see that, though legalizing marijuana may be a reasonable political position, consistency alone should not move us to support legalizing heroin.

Or, for example, being consistently racist and homophobic over a career is not consistency to be celebrated. It has been said that Ron Paul’s libertarian consistency trumps his personal feelings about the gays or the blacks. That refusing to use a gay man’s bathroom isn’t a big deal, because he supports the right of gay and lesbian individuals to do what they want. Not only is that bullshit but it points out that he’s also apparently consistently a douche-bag.

Having a foreign policy that is consistently “lunacy” should worry people. Here’s an update Ron Paul: shit is complicated. A simple policy that fits a slogan is not going to cut it. Your opposition to the Iraq War was just and reasonable. I get that, and think it’s great. You’re opposition to Israel is a little harder to understand. But following your deity of consistency to oppose engaging Hitler is absurd. You’re desire to shrink government makes sense in your political worldview, your plan to end all aid to all nations does not. Your commitment to state’s rights is easy to understand, but extending that to opposition to the Civil Rights Act makes you appear far outside maintaining the compassion that we should all strive for in our lives.

Whether TRC is oversimplifying these issues doesn’t change the fact that consistency is a virtue, but only to a point. Ron Paul and his supporters need to accept that, sometimes, consistency can lead us down a road to chaos, isolation, or indefensible alienation.

There is of course one area in which Ron Paul is more than happy to break with his consistency: in taking responsibility for the Ron Paul Survival Report, the newsletter causing his campaign so many headaches. You either wrote it or you didn’t, either way, it has your name on it, it’s your responsibility, and it is hideous. Reaching out to the far fringe elements of American discontent, the white supremacists and the anti-Semites and anti-government militias, and then denying you knew it was happening now that they support you, that’s just the kind of nuance we are looking for in a President.

Welcome to the Big Time Ron Paul. You wanted the media to take you seriously, well, this is what it looks like.  From top-left, counter-clockwise: Huffington Post, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Washington Post, New Civil Rights, Mediate New York Times via Herald Tribune.

Written by Christopher ZF

December 27, 2011 at 11:30

sidestepping the problem with cultural diagnoses

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There is a tendency in opinion reporting to direct the causes of specific problems to amorphous conversations that do little to shine any light on the subject at hand. It usually goes something like this: “The major problem X is a result of lost moral code. Our values are deteriorating, and as a result X has increased.” This is something that causes heart-ache at TRC. And it is not because such moral diagnoses are incorrect. More often than not, I agree with the proclamations that individuals are too selfish, are losing a moral center, lack strong values, etc. The problem is: that is usually not the problem. The problem is much, much more specific than that. You can take almost any issue you like and find myriad examples of losing sight of the real issue.

This comes up tonight because of an article that looks to understand why people do not talk more about climate change. The author gives several reasons: We don’t like to feel like we have no control. Social etiquette calls for politeness, making conversations about catastrophic futures difficult to engage. We use humor to deflect, rather than engage (Global Warming! With all this snow!). You get the idea. The author also includes deflection:

Another common way to practice social denial is to change the subject to moral deterioration in general (“We live in an age of rampant selfishness and greed”) or to criticize others in particular. “We’re not as bad as the Americans,” Norwegians like to say, despite being one of the largest oil producers and exporters in the world.
Criticism of scientists as “doomsayers” and “junk scientists” serves the same diversionary purpose, even in the face of the scientific consensus that humans are heating up the planet.
Ranting about researchers inventing global warming to garner grants is a distraction from thinking about a future of increasing droughts, floods, and disease.

An astute observation, I thought, and one I had not attached to climate change. I will admit, my first impulse when I read this was to think of David Brooks, the humble NYTimes op-ed writer who has one cure for everything that has ever gone wrong: people have lost their values. It is the most exhausting and useless diagnosis there is. Again, not because it is wrong, but because it offers no one any insight into a specific problem (i.e climate change) or any possible solutions to improve the situation (i.e. stop using fossil fuels). I kind of flew off the handle at David Brooks for what I termed his lazy use of this argumentative tool earlier this year regarding the sex abuse scandal at Penn State (and it turns out I’m not alone in finding this tendency of Brooks to be simply unbearable).

When it comes to problems that are existent, and pose real danger to the world as it stands now, we should not neglect the actual, present reality. This does not mean we should not discuss the potential societal causes, or discuss the moral implications that lead us to where we are. But that can only function as a part of the conversation, an equally important, but often less urgent part. Climate change is real and here. To limit serious consequences, our actions have to change, now, regardless of whether our addiction to fossil fuels is a result of a lack of a core value system that once represented a glorious unity but has now fractured into the celebration of the I, or if we just weren’t paying close attention. Otherwise we can sit in our comfy chairs, squawking about how we have lost our moral compass, while outside the window, the world burns.

What is American about America?

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There’s a story this morning floating the webs about how MSNBC compared a Romney campaign slogan to an old Ku Klux Klan slogan, and then had to apologize and berate their own “appalling” lack of journalistic standards. It really isn’t all that interesting of a flap, but it is the stuff blogs are made of.

For the Romney campaign, this story has to be an absolute winner. The bad guy in this story is MSNBC, the liberal agenda driving left-wing “news” source attempting to bring balance to the world of political coverage by being well to the left of center. Because those other mothers are well, well to the right of center.

Anyway. Romney comes out looking okay, done wrong by MSNBC, who apologizes. Sure.

Which is unfortunate, because the real story here should be the Romney slogan. Which is: Keep America American. If that doesn’t make your skin crawl…then, well, I guess you want to keep America American.

TRC has a problem with this. But its not easy to delineate, because TRC, too, wants to keep America American. But I don’t think Romney wants to keep America American by continuing a rich diversity of culture and language, for example. Continuing American traditions like welcoming immigrants who are seeking a better life that the US has to offer, opening our hearts and doors to religious tolerance. Continuing to fund and explore and move forward towards new and wonderful and different while doing our damnedest to be responsible, even if we fail. Continuing to encourage civic engagement, and passionate yet stable upheaval of political norms, social movements towards justice, re-interpretation of law and the constitution to continue bettering the lives of everyone, being a voice of good in our own country and the world, recognizing equal value despite race or religion or sexual orientation or gender or any such difference. Continuing to imbue just the right level of romanticism into our past and future, while acknowledging that that romanticism has had terrible consequences for people all over the world, and none more so than the people who were here before us. Continuing, in short, to keep what is great about America, our willingness to do good and our acknowledgement that we have done terrible, as a vital part of the US of A. Or maybe he does want all this.

Which is one reason this is difficult to express.  Among the greatest American qualities of America is that Mitt Romney can run for president with a terrible, terrible campaign slogan like “Keep America American.” Such a terrible thing is among the best things about America. But it really is awful. Because when a conservative GOP flip-flopping shallow Presidential Candidate says that he wants to Keep America American, it just feels…gross. So, I suppose I strongly agree with Mitt Romney, even though I couldn’t disagree more.

**UPDATE: If you are interested in more than TRC’s ranting on the Keep America American slogan, The Atlantic has a very nice piece that you should read.

Written by Christopher ZF

December 15, 2011 at 10:04

Why the Internet is awesome: Rhys Morgan and the Burzynski Clinic

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Sometimes I hate the internet. Some days, it’s just a space filled with nonsense and bilge.

And then there are days like today, where you do a quick morning round up, and end up learning something new and being inspired. That happened to me this morning, when I found a courageous young man standing up for sound science. It is a worthy story, and I thought I’d share the path.

On the morning blog routine is Bad Astronomer, where I read the post “‘Alternative’ cancer clinic threatens to sue high school blogger.” The story is about a 17-year old British high-school student named Rhys Morgan. Morgan suffers from Crohn’ Disease, and keeps a blog about his life, health, and treatment, among other things. One of those things is the Burzynski Clinic, a cancer treatment center in Texas that apparently offers very expensive cancer treatments that are not based on sound medical research. I’d never heard of it.

So Morgan posted about this place. He wrote a post in August titled The Burzynski Clinic, and cataloged the criticisms of the treatment, called antineoplaston treatment. Among them are: it has been in clinical trials for 30+ years, has no FDA approved treatments, and has been called “scientific nonsense” by the Allegheny Cancer Center in Pennsylvania. Morgan also points out the tragedy of taking money from desperate people in need of hope, even as he understands that attacking the Clinic could take away more hope. It’s an excellent piece, handling sensitive but critically important issues, written by a young man who can speak to the difficulty of illness.

Needless to say, this was not taken to kindly by the Burzynski Clinic. As Rhys Morgan chronicles in his latest post, Threats from the Burzynski Clinic. Read that one. It’s long, but worth it. In it, Morgan copies the exchanges between himself and a representative of the clinic, who is threatening to sue Morgan for libel.  The exchange is remarkable if for no other reason than the tactics. It begins with a cease-and-desist and ends with the clinic’s threats attached to a photo of Morgan’s home from Google Maps.The ‘lawyer’ acts as though he is God, and that any opposition, especially from a high-school student, deserves to be ridiculed, bullied, and belittled.

But still, this is a threat of legal action, from a successful, if scientifically sketchy, cancer clinic. I was actually inspired (something that doesn’t happen often on the internet) by reading the back and forth. Morgan holds his ground, acts responsibly, and stands up for science and the law. Kudos to this young man, and shame on the Burzynski Clinic for their bullying, brutish behavior.

As a final note to the greatness of the inter-webs, I googled this story to see what else there was to read about Rhys Morgan. I found this story by BoingBoing, where they discuss other threatening claims from the clinic.

The BoingBoing article ends with a warning to the Clinic about an online feedback loop in which any attempt to remove content from the internet only generates publicity, and leads to the explosive reproduction, sharing and the spread of that content. Today, TRC and all the others picking up this story are proof that it works.

The effect is named after Barbara Streisand, who attempted to have a photo of her home removed from the internet. To show the true impact of this loop, there is a wikipedia page titled: the Streisand Effect. It features prominently the photo of Barbara Streisand’s home.

*NOTE: I’m not particularly interested in people’s opinions on alternative medicine. Like anti-vax and other scientific ‘controversies’, it’s an argument that cannot move in any direction, and thus is not particularly enlightening. Please save your anecdotes for another blog.

Written by Christopher ZF

November 29, 2011 at 11:33

WR Mead joins David Brooks in lamenting the terrible nature of everything

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What is changing? Is the Twilight of the Boomers setting upon us, requiring cultural prognosticators to make social diagnoses about the failure of America? I know things are bad around here these days, but, come on.

Yesterday, it was David Brooks casting the country in the cloud of moral vacuity, unable to recognize evil, embracing the selfish returns of the individual, and hiding behind our interests to the demise of the nation. Pretty heavy charges.

Today it is Walter Russell Mead, decrying the moral failures of the Baby Boomers, casting his moral judgment upon the whole of an American generation. Says Mead:

 Too many of us clung for to that shiny image of youth and potential too long, and blighted our promise because we were hypnotized by it. This is of course narcissism, our greatest and most characteristic failing as a generation, and like Narcissus our generation missed greatness because of our fascination with our glittering selves. What begins in arrogance often ends in shame; there are some ominous signs that the Boomers are headed down that path. Sooner or later, the kids were going to note what a mess we have made of so many things, and now, it seems, the backlash has begun.  

Mead goes on to list the failings of the boomers, and suffice it to say, the list is long, and the charges leveled at our parents are pretty dire.

Apparently, the nostalgia of recent American history is waning, and there is not too much hope for the American future these days, as we forthrightly criticize the whole population as a bunch of narcissistic, self-serving, evil-embracing failures. What is going on?

Maybe I’m wrong to find these kinds of laments frustrating. Perhaps we are a nation that has fallen away from goodness and into the territory of amorality and self-interest. Perhaps my failure to recognize that aspect of American Culture results from my participation in that amorality. But, for the love of Christ, I sure hope not. I sure hope Brooks and Mead are wrong, wrong, wrong. Of course there are moral failings, and of course the baby boomers have screwed things up. But the boomers did good things for this country, too, and sorry David Brooks, but I tend to think that every day in the United States, most people choose to do the things that are upright, positive and good. We are not a country that has turned our back on caring for each other, recognizing each other, and longing for peace. Not as a whole, not even as a majority. Maybe TRC is just optimistic. Maybe the people who are attracted to power, attracted to making the rules, are the ones who have such grave moral failings, or maybe not. But it does not compute, at TRC, to find such deficiencies in our whole nation.

Or maybe a generation is reaching its twilight, and looking back on their own failures. If that’s the case, I hope all this sorrow works itself out soon, so the rest of us don’t have to spend the next 5 years reading about how a cloud of failure and despair has ruined everything. That certainly won’t help anything get better.

Written by Christopher ZF

November 14, 2011 at 14:53