Monday, May 19, 2008


This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. -- Franklin Roosevelt

I am tired of being afraid. ... I am so tired of fear, and I don't want my girls to live in a country, in a world, based on fear. -- Michelle Obama

In This Week's Sift:

Marriage Equality in California. The more same-sex marriages there are, the stranger the objections to it sound.

Targeting Obama. It's no longer acceptable to say "Don't vote for the black guy." But that doesn't mean racism's gone.

The Voter-Fraud Fraud. A phony voter-fraud issue lets the Republicans squeeze out marginal voters.

Short Notes. The Olbermann-O'Reilly feud escalates to GE vs. News Corp. Mad Pride. And John King's close encounter.

One of the great discoveries in the history of marketing is known by the acronym FUD: fear, uncertainty, and doubt. If you represent the status quo, you don't have to make any verifiable charges against your upstart rivals. Instead, you just have to raise FUD. Get people thinking that if they change, something -- you don't have to be clear about what -- might go wrong. In fact, the less clear you are the better. Any specific fear might be confronted and dealt with, but how can your rivals fight people's vague sense that something they haven't considered might come back to bite them?

The weakness of a FUD campaign is that, lacking substance, its effectiveness tends to dissipate all at once, like a fog blown away by the wind.

Marriage Equality in California
No issue in recent years has had a higher FUD-factor than same-sex marriage. Some unnameable thing is going to go horribly wrong if gays and lesbians are allowed to marry. “Barring a miracle,” James Dobson wrote in 2004 as the first same-sex marriages were happening in Massachusetts, "the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization itself."

You can almost imagine believing that kind of hyperbole when same-sex marriage is some strange theoretical concept. But then you move in next door to Bob and Jim, who have rose bushes make a great peach cobbler, and the idea that they're bringing down Western civilization suddenly seems pretty wacky. The more Bobs and Jims there are, and the more people who live next door to them, the harder it is to raise credible FUD against gay marriage. The fog blows away.

I live about four miles from Massachusetts, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2004. I'm not sure what kind of noise the fall of Western Civilization is supposed to make, but I'm sure I would have heard it. As far as I know, civilization has also not yet collapsed in the Netherlands, which started performing same-sex marriages in 2001. Nor in Spain, Canada, Belgium, or South Africa. Civil unions of one sort or another are currently recognized right here in New Hampshire, as well as in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, and the District of Columbia. Denmark has been doing them since 1989. The list of other civil-union-recognizing countries is longer than I want to type -- Wikipedia has it -- but includes such avant-garde places as Uruguay and Croatia.

If government-sanctioned homosexual relationships can't even bring down civilization in Uruguay, how bad can they be?

Thursday the California Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that the state's separate-but-almost-equal domestic partnership arrangement isn't good enough. According to their interpretation of the state constitution and its equal-protection clause, California has to have one institution, not separate ones for opposite-sex and same-sex couples. The court leaves the legislature to decide whether that institution will be called "marriage" or "domestic partnership" or something else, but it has to be the same for everybody.

It's been fascinating watching reactions from the usual FUD-slingers, who don't seem to realize that their talking points are becoming increasingly irrelevant. They still talk about unelected judges imposing their liberal vision on the rest of us through judicial activism -- totally ignoring the role of elected officials in bringing this case to trial, as well as the fact that 3 of the 4 judges in the majority were appointed by Republican governors.

History. The California judges outline the history of the case, beginning on page 12 of the decision. In February 2004, the mayor of San Francisco started a process that led to the city issuing marriage licenses to about 4000 same-sex couples. Conservatives went to the courts to stop this, and got this same California Supreme Court to tell San Francisco to knock it off and to nullify the licenses already issued. The city then filed suit claiming that the statute the court had based its ruling on (Proposition 22, passed by voter initiative in 2000) was unconstitutional, a subject the court had not ruled on. That suit was joined by a number of same-sex couples, and then wound its way up the state court system, winning in superior court and losing in appellate court before landing back in the lap of the supremes.

In the meantime, in 2005 and again in 2007, the state legislature passed a same-sex marriage bill, which Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed each time for procedural reasons. (On pages 29-32 of the decision, the court agreed with Schwarzenegger.)

Eventually, this whole thing is going to end up back with the voters anyway. A constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage is likely to be a ballot soon. (Is it just me, or is it crazy to have a system where a simple majority can amend the constitution? I think if I were a California citizen, I'd be gathering signatures on an initiative petition amending the constitution to require a 2/3 vote to amend the constitution.) Prop. 22 got 61% of the vote in 2000, but that was before civilization failed to collapse in Massachusetts, and before the California Domestic Partner Act of 2003 also failed to herald the Apocalypse. It will be much more difficult to raise a significant FUD cloud this time.

Legal reasoning. Legally, all the same-sex marriage decisions look a lot the same. Whenever the government treats some group of people differently from another, it needs to have a reason. How good that reason needs to be depends on how inherently suspect the discrimination is.

For example, where I vote, people whose names begin with A-L stand in a different line from the M-Z people. Nobody suspects that the election officials have anything against either group, and neither line has any particular advantage over the other, so the officials don't have to have much of a reason. "Convenience" is good enough. But now imagine that blacks had a special line that went much slower. "Convenience" wouldn't be nearly good enough to explain that arrangement to a court, because racial discrimination is inherently suspect in a way that alphabetical discrimination isn't.

So all the same-sex marriage cases hang on two questions: How inherently suspect is it to discriminate based on sexual orientation? And how good a reason does the government have for marriage discrimination? Does the government just need to have just a rational reason to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples (a reasonable connection between the discrimination and some legitimate government goal), or a compelling reason (there's just no other way to do whatever it is they're doing). For example, if a town had evidence that its students would learn better in separate boys and girls high schools, it would have a rational reason for creating such schools, but not a compelling reason. But the government has a compelling reason to discriminate against murderers, because society falls apart if you don't.

In California, the appellate court had ruled that the state only needed a rational reason for marriage discrimination, and it had one. The Supreme Court overturned that by ruling that the state needed a compelling reason, and it didn't have one. In Massachusetts, the court had ruled that marriage discrimination lacked even a rational justification. I agree with Massachusetts.

What about the children? When pressed to produce some rational reason for the state to discriminate against same-sex couples, the traditional-values types always claim to represent the best interests of the children. The traditional father-mother family, they say, is the best environment for raising children, and that's why the state should favor it over other types of households.

A bunch of things are wrong with this argument. First, it's ad hoc. People who use this argument against same-sex marriage ignore its other implications -- like not allowing parents to divorce until their children are grown. When I hear the anti-gay-marriage folks propose that, maybe I'll start taking them seriously.

Second, which children does marriage discrimination help? Children being raised by same-sex couples today are clearly harmed by having their households stigmatized. And if marriage discrimination discourages gay and lesbian single parents from forming long-term partnerships, then their children are harmed also. And children being raised by opposite-sex couples -- how does discrimination against same-sex households help them?

The only way this argument makes sense is if we're talking about future children, not existing ones. And then only if the state, by juggling incentives, can induce people to choose heterosexual relationships over homosexual ones. By favoring heterosexual households, you see, the state encourages more people to form them. And that benefits whatever children they may have, I guess, because repressed homosexuals make such good parents.

The state's incentives, however, only make a difference if homosexuality is a choice rather than an orientation. The secular evidence for this notion is pretty thin, but right-wing Christians have theological reasons for believing it. (Sin has to be your decision, not God's. Otherwise sending you to Hell is a miscarriage of divine justice.) So, when you break it down, what you basically have is a religious argument, not a social policy argument.

Finally -- and I left this to the end because it's the hardest objection to explain -- the whole argument is based on bogus statistics. On just about any issue in social science, a small group of people is responsible for most of the dysfunction. If you want to slander some other group of people, you arrange your categories so that they are lumped together with the underperforming group. Then you total up, and -- presto! -- their category is responsible for most of the dysfunction.

Whenever I've chased an opposite-sex-superiority claim back to the source study, they've been comparing children raised by their married biological parents against children raised by everyone else. "Everyone else" includes a substantial number of teen-age single mothers, many of whom are poor and uneducated. And I'm sure you won't be shocked to discover that on average, children of poor, uneducated, teen-age single mothers don't do as well as most other children. So children from traditional married mother-father families, on average, do better than other children, but the reason has nothing to do with homosexuality.

In short, the only real reason to oppose same-sex marriage is because God says it's wrong. If you don't believe that, or if (like a court) you're not allowed to take that argument into account, then there's no reason at all.

Targeting Obama
FUD has played a special role in the Republican strategy in all recent elections, the general point being that if Democrats get power, something really bad will happen. The vaguer that something really bad is, the more effective the campaign. One Democrat after another flails about, trying to prove that something really bad won't happen if he or she gets power. "Under my administration, the United States will not have any more random misfortune than you would ordinarily expect."

It's not a very compelling message, is it?

Against Obama, though, FUD will be even more important due to the way racism works in this era. It is clearly out of bounds for a 21st-century campaign to say "Don't vote for the black guy." Even among friends or in the privacy of their own minds, the vast majority of Americans aren't willing to admit, "I'm not going to vote for that guy because he's black." We know that we're good people, and good people aren't supposed to think like that.

But forcing racism (or sexism or any other prejudice) into the unconscious doesn't make it go away. Instead, a candidate like Obama starts the campaign under a shadow: Many voters have a nebulous sense that there must be something wrong with this guy. Finding some specific wrong feels like a relief: Thank God, now I know why I never liked him. It's not because he's black, it's because he has a wacko pastor, or because he's a Muslim, or because he's not patriotic, or anything other than because he's black. Republicans know that they don't need to offer people a reason to vote against Obama, just an excuse.

This week's excuse is that Obama is "an appeaser". Because he wants to go back to the traditional American practice of talking to our enemies -- Nixon and Mao, Reagan and Gorbachev, Kennedy and Krushchev, etc. -- Obama is like Neville Chamberlain giving Czechoslovakia away to Hitler. Clearly, something really bad would happen if Obama met with Iran's Ahmadinejad. What? No one is saying.

Bush started this smear in a speech to the Israeli parliament, and it was dutifully picked up by the usual shills. (The most embarrassing version of this was conservative talk-radio host Kevin James on Hardball. James kept repeating "appeaser" but seemed to have no idea what it meant. Chris Matthews totally humiliated him. Details on Digby's Hullabaloo.)

McCain (and the usual shills) has been trumpeting a similar talking point about Obama being endorsed by Hamas. The kernel of truth here is that a Hamas guy said something nice about Obama during a radio interview. A comparable situation would be if someone from the KKK said that they'd rather see the white guy (McCain) get elected. But framing this as an "endorsement" implies that Obama wooed Hamas the way McCain wooed John Hagee. The key question in all these issues is: What's the accusation?

By now Democrats should know that trying to appear harmless doesn't work. We've have got to do an FDR and target fear directly, as Michelle Obama does in the video that the lead quote comes from.

The Voter-Fraud Fraud
This issue goes a little beyond FUD. It's a scam based on manufacturing and exploiting fear of something negligibly rare: people showing up at a polling place and falsely claiming to be eligible voters. In response to this bogus fear, Republicans pass laws that make it harder for people on the fringes of society -- usually Democrats -- to vote.

Expect to see much more of this now that the Supreme Court has given its blessing to Indiana's voter ID law, the one that protected the Republic from 12 elderly nuns who tried to vote in the recent Indiana primary.

Sunday the Dallas Morning News provided more evidence that voter fraud is not a serious problem: Texas' Republican attorney general set up a special unit to prosecute voter fraud, got a $1.4 million federal grant to fund it, and in two years has managed to prosecute only 26 cases, 18 of which were technical violations involving how absentee ballots are mailed in -- probably innocent mistakes and certainly not fixable with a voter ID law. None of the cases seem to be part of any larger conspiracy. But the targets were all Democrats and "almost all ... blacks or Hispanics". The cases resulted in "small fines and little or no jail time".

But this "success" allowed the AG to claim (in a brief to the Supreme Court) that he had "obtained numerous indictments, guilty pleas and convictions" of voter fraud. Texas Republicans are now pushing for an Indiana-like voter ID law.

TPM reminds us how high this goes: "
In the case of the US Attorney firings, most of the dismissals targeted prosecutors who refused to use the power of their office to advance the interests of the Republican party by engaging in these kinds of witch hunts."

Missouri Republicans want to up the ante even further. The Center for American Progress totals up the cost of compliance with a proposed Missouri law that voters come to the polls with proof of their citizenship. This is a 2-for-1 deal on manufactured fear: not just voter fraud, but illegal immigrants as well. No one has been able to identify an illegal immigrant who has voted fraudulently, but it would be really scary if it happened, wouldn't it?

Digby: "
I would imagine that there are a whole lot of older people who've never had to prove their citizenship in their lives and wouldn't have a clue about how to go about doing it." The New York Times comments: "The imposition of harsh new requirements to vote has become a partisan issue, but it should not be. These rules are an assault on democracy itself."

Short Notes
One of the more amusing parts of Keith Olbermann's nightly Countdown program on MSNBC is his running feud with Bill O'Reilly of Fox News. Almost every night, some bit of buffoonery from "Bill-O" is one of the three finalists in Countdown's "Worst Person in the World" segment. For his part, O'Reilly has stopped mentioning Olbermann's name, and instead has been going up the ladder, attacking NBC and now NBC's parent corporation, General Electric. (Because GE is winding down its contracts with Iran -- for energy and health care equipment, not weapons -- rather than breaking them, O'Reilly has been targeting them for "doing business right this minute with Iran, who are killing our soldiers.") It's one of those classic high-school Smart Alec vs. Jerk battles, where the smart alec (Olbermann) seems to be having a good time and the jerk (O'Reilly) is taking it seriously. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz has more detail.

Joe Galloway is trying to stay on top of the story of the ex-generals organized by the Pentagon to repeat administration talking points while claiming to be independent commentators on TV. The media has completely ignored this attack on its credibility since the New York Times broke the story four weeks ago. MediaBloodHound comments on Brian Williams' lack of comment. Media Matters estimates that these compromised "analysts" were quoted 4,500 times on the major news networks.

Have you seen that high-tech election board that CNN's John King mans during their primary election coverage? 23/6 provides an amusing soundtrack for it.

Which is more depressing: That the gap between male and female starting salaries hasn't budged during the Bush years, or that each gender is worse off than it was in 2000?

Digby reviews Nixonland by Rick Perlstein: "you can't begin to understand our current political time without understanding that one."

The New York Times recently had an article about the "Mad Pride" movement to de-stigmatize mental illness. Liz Spikol is part of it, and this video is great. It starts out funny, and then does something else.


Jon said...

HI Doug Still Love reading your thoughts on current events. What did you think about Ex-MI Gov and Navy Seal Jesse Ventura taking down Pat Buchanon On U-tube on Marriage Equality? I thought he was rather succinct. Your thoughts?

Doug Muder said...

I didn't see it until just now. I like Ventura's point that government should do civil unions for couples of any gender and leave it to the churches whether they want to recognize them as marriages. That's one of the possibilities left open by the California Supreme Court, and I think it would shift the national debate in an interesting direction if the state goes that way.