Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Burqa Battle

The French government is working hard to outdo Swiss legislators in mistaking ethnic uniformity for national unity, crafting laws that are blatantly anti-religious and should, by any who truly value their religious freedoms, be opposed. As America watches this newest miscarriage of justice, it would do well not to imitate it.

The Swiss government's latest anti-Muslim volley banned construction of new minarets, but French President Sarkozy is getting a bit more personal about it by attempting to ban the wearing in public of the burqa, the head-to-toe covering worn by a very small number of Muslim women.

It's important to understand that France has a tortured history in terms of religious freedom. More than any other state in the European sphere, France has striven to be free from religion, at least in its public sphere. Indeed, its cathedrals are mostly museums, relics of a not-so-pretty past in which church and state, priest and provincial governor, ruled hand-in-hand. Even devout church historians have had to admit, belatedly, that it was a bloody bad marriage. The Reformation, at least in part, was an attempt at an amicable divorce.

The roots of official French intolerance reach far into its past. What is now France was once the de facto seat of European power during the Crusades. At the behest and with the blessing of a succession of Popes, French antecedents led the vast armies that marched to the Middle East to wrest the "Holy Land" from Muslim control.

Until the the crusaders arrived, Christians, Muslims and Jews had, for the most part, shared Jerusalem and the surrounding territories, traded with one another, and managed to live in relative peace. You wouldn't know it to look at the world today, but 'tis true: Muslim rulers, in obedience to the Prophet's declaration that Muslims, Christians and Jews were all "People of the Book," managed to be a bit more tolerant than either the modern-day French or Swiss.

That relatively peaceful epoch, of course, went out the window after European Christians swept like waves of locusts over the Middle East, killing not only Muslims, but Jews and fellow Byzantine Christians as well. The problems we live with in the Middle East now, we owe to those faithful churchmen who forever made the word infidel into an epithet. Europeans led by pre-French royals — not the Muslims — ignited the holy war that still rages in Palestine.

The Crusades were only the most spectacular of the many excesses of a wedded church and state. Secularists in France, seeking to undo the damage done, did what people often do when confronted with extremes: They had an extreme reaction. It's culmination was the French Revolution, every bit as bloody and mindless as the Crusades (albeit confined to France). Although the public thirst for the guillotine waned, that reactive mindset is still a foundational characteristic in French politics. France, above all, seeks its security, and French identity, in a profoundly secularist worldview.

That's the background for the current "ban the burqa" crusade. Polls indicate that only one-third of the French public actually supports such legislation. Another one-third favors a less restrictive law, in which, for security reasons, a burqa-clad woman might be required to unveil her face to abet proper identification. That means that another third oppose the restriction or have no opinion (see, for example, this article in the The Washington Post). But the total ban has the ardent support of the far right in France (political descendents of those who marched on the Holy Land and, frankly, those who accommodated Hitler in Vichy France).

Sarkozy has attempted to "sell" the law on the pretext that it protects women. Let me make clear that there is something to that argument. It is no secret that some groups within Islam would like to see all women forced to wear them. This same sort of group was behind the throwing of acid in little Afghani girls' faces because they had the audacity to want to go to school (one important reason why America and its allies are involved in the country — something those who oppose our efforts there as a "lost cause" conveniently forget). It is no doubt true that some women wear the burqa or other hair covering out of fear — fear even of their own husband's physical punishment. But it is also true that these groups do not make up the mainstream of Muslim opinion. And Mr. Sakozy's argument ignores the fact that a growing number of educated and otherwise fully empowered Muslim women are electing to wear head scarves and even the burqa as a religious duty — nay, as their freely adopted sign of devotion to Islam.

While the French government might rightly seek to help a Muslim woman escape from a burqa she is forced to wear, it must also, if it claims to safeguard freedom, affirm a Muslim woman's right to choose the burqa. One does not need to be a fan of the burqa or Islam to see the essential rightness of this in a free society. Any law that does not affirm and accommodate both realities is doomed to fail and is certain to further divide the nation that seeks, by that law, to be unified.

Sarkozy is right to oppose the oppression of women. But he is wrong to assume that the burqa is, by definition, an instrument of oppression. The reality is much more complicated, as reality almost always is. When we simply react, and seek no means to temper our fear and anger with wisdom and perspective, that with which we are angry ultimately controls us. In savage irony, we become what we oppose. We substitute tyranny for tyranny. A blanket anti-burqa law becomes, in its effect, just a bloodless and "civilized" attempt at what, in the Balkans and Africa, we might label "ethnic cleansing." And it is sure to be seen as such by Muslims now resident in France.

Indeed, despite Sarkozy's attempts to veil the burqa legislation in "women's rights" cloth, the law is actually one thread in the far right's overall mission: to more narrowly define what it means to be French. In the 2oth Century, Arabs, Persians and Palestinians were welcomed to France during prosperous times, to do the jobs French citizens preferred not to do. The French were glad to have them, and the newcomers were glad to accept better jobs than they were likely to find in their troubled home countries. Many, indeed, sought citizenship and planted deep economic and social roots. But by the 1990s, a faltering economy in France had dried up many of those jobs and, as displaced peoples are wont to do when they are suddenly poor and marginalized in their adopted land, many latecomers returned to the religion of their youth for comfort and security. The resulting unrest and the return to Islam alarmed the French far right, and the burqa has been politicized as a symbol of what is not French.

It's not difficult to make application to the current American political scene. It is easy to latch onto a simplistic view of national life ("America is a Christian nation," for example) and thus stir up the fears and encourage the anger that undergird the current "populist" uprisings. Fueled from the American far right by a litany of groundless and overblown fears, a growing number of Americans want simple answers to complex questions, and thus imperil the very foundations they seek to protect. (Obama as a"closet" Muslim, is groundless, for example, while the fact that "whites" soon will be out-numbered by so-called "people of color"— as if the latter were some kind of white-hating monolithic voting block — is an example of overblown.)

Those who call themselves Christians (I am among them) would do well to study Europe's past and present errors, and then resist the populist impulse to press (again) our own simplistic template of uniformity over the vast and complex diversity of American life — a template that ultimately includes only those who agree with "us" and excludes those who don't. It's the very stuff of the world's troubles — many of which our crusading Christian ancestors authored. And troubles that, history tells us without exception, are ultimately self-destructive.

If we insist on a Christian America (particularly a "white" one), and cannot regard those with whom we share the Scriptures — and those who read other "holy books" or have none at all — with not only tolerance, but love as well, then we have already lost the battle. To glimpse our future, we need only tour the empty cathedrals of France.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Obamacare Will Land You in Jail!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

OK, now that I have your attention, let me first say that the above is absolutely not true. Sorry, I know its a cheap trick, but had I written, "Let's Take a Calm Look at Health Care Reform," you probably wouldn't be reading this. I'm hoping that those attracted here by that sensational headline will let the intended irony sink all the way in and then do themselves the favor of reading further.

The Republican party and its de facto media wing, FOX News — no strangers to cheap-trick headlines — took one of their own to task this week — Republican Senator Tom Coburn — at a recent town hall event in Oklahoma. Coburn had the temerity to say something reasonably respectful about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (and got booed). Then, when someone asked him about the possibility that people could be imprisoned for not buying health insurance under the recently passed Obama plan, he compounded his sin by trying to dispel the persistent rumor.

“The intention is not to put anybody in jail," Coburn explained, adding, "That makes for good TV news on FOX, but that isn't the intention.” If you're not familiar with the event, see this. Coburn, of course, paid dearly in the right-leaning press for his effort to disengage from Party of No rhetoric, after his FOX comment hit the airwaves and the Internet. And FOX News personality Bill O'Reilly categorically denied that anyone had ever said such a thing on a FOX program.

In this article, however, TIME magazine online blogger Kate Pickert reviewed FOX transcripts and found that, indeed, FOX personalities had given the "go to jail if you don't buy insurance" rumor plenty of exposure on several occasions. (Pickert also point out, for the record, that the new health care law specifically forbids jailing anyone who refuses to buy health insurance.)

To me, the most astonishing thing is not that right-wingers are so intent on misrepresenting the law, but that they are so upset by the idea of compulsory insurance in the first place. Opponents of "Obamacare" frequently appeal to the U.S. Constitution, claiming that the idea is a violation of their inalienable rights. But here in Colorado, if I want to own a car, I must buy auto insurance and that insurance must adhere to certain coverage standards. When I register my vehicle, I must sign a statement on the back of the registration certificate, which is preceded by warnings about the penalties established by law for noncompliance.

"Motor vehicle insurance is compulsory in Colorado," it declares at the top and then goes on to warn in bold type, "Non-compliance is a misdemeanor traffic offense. The minimum penalty for such offense is a five hundred dollar fine. The maximum penalty for such offense is one-year imprisonment and a one-thousand dollar fine [italics mine]." Further, I must sign a statement, declaring that I swear or affirm, on penalty of perjury (a separate offense that also can carry jail time), that I have purchased said insurance.

Auto insurance is, in fact, compulsory in most U.S. states. Many prescribe revocation of driving privileges and potential jail time for those who don't comply.

Now, I don't know where the Party of No and Tea Party folks were when their states took away their "right" to be uninsured drivers, but they can't blame that one on President Obama. And the fact that their home state government might put them in jail if they let their car insurance lapse ought to give the states-righters among them reason to rethink the secessionist rhetoric.

But the point is this: These U.S. states have made auto insurance compulsory because the costs imposed on society by uninsured drivers were very high. Those who responsibly insured themselves ended up shouldering the cost, in the form of higher rates, of the property-damage, medical and accidental-death judgments that their insurance companies were unable to collect from the uninsured. Because it was both unreasonable and unfair to penalize the responsible for the actions of the irresponsible (something a Teabagger really ought to resonate with), these states enacted compulsory auto insurance laws. Having every car owner in the insurance pool keeps rates down and ensures that all are protected against financial devastation when accidents happen. Does this argument sound familiar?

It should. This is the simple, sensible solution to high costs that Congressional health care reform advocates have sought for decades. What some see as a "government takeover" of health care is merely a long-overdue effort to regulate it, just like car insurance is regulated. The concept is neither new nor radical nor socialist — it's hard to make a case for it being "unAmerican" when so many Americans already dutifully comply with such a law every time they write that car insurance check. And in the case of health insurance — despite what the rumormongers still insist on telling us — there's no threat of jail time. So ... why all the angst?

Here's an idea: Let's take a calm look at health care reform.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Contract From (disaffected, white) America

The NY Times reported the results of a poll, yesterday, indicating that those who identify with the "Tea Party" movement are predominately well-educated, middle-to-upper-middle class Americans. They also are predominately white, male, Republican (not a surprise) and married.

In the same issue, the NY Times reports on a new Contract From America, an allusion to the Newt Gingrich-led Republican effort called the Contract with America, which the G.O.P. took to the electorate in 1994 and recaptured control of Congress. Unlike the Contract with America, the Contract From America, as its name implies, is described by its compilers as coming "direct from the American people," rather than from elected officials in Washington. More precisely, the Contract actually comes from a segment of the American far right: The document was reportedly developed by polling some 450,000 Tea Party adherents.

The new Tea Party-inspired Contract asks candidates for public office — those who want Tea Party votes, anyway — to sign off on all of the following ten CFA planks (you can read the Contract at www.thecontract.org):

1) Tea Party candidates must seek to pass legislation that would require the authors of each bill before Congress to identify the "specific provision of the Constitution that gives Congress the authority to do what that bill does." This one was supported by 82 percent of the CFA surveyees. Tea Partiers need to take another look at the Constitution's Section 8 before they get to excited: "The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence [sic] and general Welfare of the United States ... (italics mine)." Two centuries of U.S. judicial review have, of necessity, defined this "general welfare" clause in terms of our country's people (the government is, of course,"of the people, by the people and for the people"). And the trend has been to apply general welfare provisions to all its people, thus, landmark pieces of civil rights legislation. That clause includes the possibility that the federal government might want to help out with things like health care for people who cannot afford it. It's important to note, also, that there is nothing in the Constitution that specifically mentions (let alone favors) free-market economics. In fact, the "Powers" section specifically gives Congress permission to impose and collect duties and other taxes designed to control market activity. The Constitution, from the get go, was not a "free-market" document. We've never had "free-markets." In fact, the Constitution implies just the opposite, that there need to be some government controls. I'm no socialist, but there also is nothing in the Constitution which prohibits socialism, should the American people so choose it. Americans are free, of course, to oppose socialism. But it's not (sorry, Ms. Palin) specifically "unAmerican." Plank #1 really won't change things much. According to the Constitution the Tea Party folks are so anxious to protect, the Founding Fathers they revere anticipated questions of constitutionality and built into our system of government a mechanism for testing it. It's called the federal judidiary at the pinnacle of which sits the Supreme Court. (Also see plank#7).

2) Pols who want Tea Party votes must "reject cap-and-trade regulation of climate-warming gases." The CFA sees cap-and-trade as a strategy that will increase unemployment, raise consumer prices, and weaken U.S. global competitiveness, while making little difference in greenhouse gas emissions. CFA says 70 percent of the respondents called for this one. But even if Tea partiers are right and climate and environmental scientists who actually have done research into this are wrong, the job losses Tea Partiers predict from cap-and-trade enactment are unlikely to be anywhere near as severe as the unemployment epidemic that will follow combined action on planks 3, 6, 7, 9 & 10. Cap-and-trade actually is a very good way for companies that responsibly reduce the carbon footprint to reap a windfall by selling their carbon credits to those who don't, and cover the costs of doing so. It introduces a competitive advantage for those who act responsibly. Capitalism at its best.

3) Tea Party candidates must seek to amend the Constitution to require a balanced budget and require a two-thirds majority in Congress for every tax increase. Has anyone been watching the fiscal circus in California the last two years? Taxpayer initiatives in this and a number of other states, have tied the hands of legislators during the downturn, precipitating cuts to and shut downs of vital services, among them public security and education. Tea Party people apparently see this outcome as a good thing, and want to (sorry, I can't resist) californicate the whole country (also see plank #5).

4) Candidates must press for a "simple and fair single-tax system" that can be described in a document no longer than the Constitution (a little more than 4,500 words). Cute, and frankly, I'm OK with this, personally. Most years, I could fill out the 1040EZ anyway. My life is not very complicated. But will well-to-do Tea Partiers really consider "fair" a tax code devoid of the myriad personal and corporate tax shelters and loopholes to which they and their armies of accountants have become accustomed? And think of the devastation this will wreak on said bean counters, who owe their profitable livelihoods to our current IRS code?

5) This one calls for a Blue Ribbon panel that will audit all federal programs for constitutionality, effectiveness and waste. Actually, this is mostly a good idea. But Mr. Obama had the idea first. Minus the constitutionality thrust (which is covered by the judiciary; see plank #1), he ran on this idea, remember? But both the Party of No and his fellow Democrats nipped that idea in the bud. Politicians and their constituents only want the other guy's programs cut (see plank #9). And who's to sit on this panel, anyway? Who picks these folks? The U.S. Senate can't even approve people to head minor government agencies or sit on a federal court bench without some Senator sitting on the appointment for six months or threatening a filibuster. What makes the Tea Party think there's a chance in the world that such a panel will ever be formed, much less that its members could actually agree about a program's merits?

6) Tea Party candidates must also impose a cap on the rate of government spending growth. This provision will be unnecessary if the Tea Party passes its balanced budget amendment. Since one-third or better of the economy is currently dependent on government spending, cuts to government programs will make the 2009 recession's and the Great Depression's unemployment rates look like good times by comparison. The effect on the economy will be immediate and devastating — just as it has been in California, where taxpayer-driven balanced budget initiatives (noted in plank #3) and forced cuts have helped drive California unemployment to levels far higher than in the rest of the country). Tax revenues will plummet, and the government spending will have to plummet along with the plunging revenues. Costing more jobs, of course. We'll all lose our shirts, but we'll have a balanced budget. The only way to reduce the budget deficit without running everyone's life in the process to grow the economy by encouraging job creation, collecting the increased tax revenue, carefully ratcheting back on costs (via such measures as health care reform, which concerns another 30 percent of the GDP) and, sorry, by raising additional revenues. If you're not willing to raise revenues, then your only other choice, if you truly want to balance the budget and keep it under control, is to go after Social Security. Like that's going to happen.

7) Tea Party vote getters must also "defund and repeal" the recently passed "government-run" health care legislation and replace it with an "open, competitive and transparent free-market" health care system and an insurance system "unrestricted by state boundaries." First off, the government didn't run it before, and it doesn't run it now. Second, Tea Partiers favored, in a recent poll of 2012 Presidential hopefuls, none other than Gov. Mitt Romney, who championed a health care plan very similar to the Obama plan in his home state (no one, to my knowledge, not even newly elected Massachusetts Sen. Brown, has yet proposed a repeal). Beyond the inaccuracy and inconsistency of Tea Party pronouncements on this subject, the more serious flaw in Tea Party reasoning here is that, apart from the state boundary limitations, what they're proposing is essentially what got us into the current health-care crisis in the first place. Are Tea Partiers really willing to go regress to a scenario in which insurance companies could cancel the policies of those who actually use the insurance, and exclude the most needy from coverage? If the Tea Party gets its way, insurance eventually will be accessible only to those who can afford to pay for most of their health care straight up, and largely unavailable to those who most need this social safety net. Here's what I don't understand: In the last century, state governments enacted laws that forced all car owners to carry insurance. Why? Because the costs imposed on society by medical and property damage claims involving a growing number of uninsured drivers were rising and becoming unmanageable. The costs of carrying the uninsured were ultimately laid on taxpayers (or added to public debt, which is the same thing) and therefore negatively affected Tea Partiers, whether they were aware of it or not. There were no mass protests when auto insurance was made compulsory. And those who do not comply don't just pay a fine (not a tax) but they also lose their driving privileges. And those laws have kept insurance rates remarkably stable. There is no difference whatsoever between that and requiring that all people who want health care buy some kind of health insurance. Including everyone in the insurance pool is the only way to control the individual's insurance costs. The risk must be spread over the broadest possible cross-section of society. No issue before the Congress in recent years has better met the Tea Party's test for "constitutionality" than health care reform. If the rising costs of health care and the fact that 47 million people have no insurance aren't matters of "general welfare" then nothing is, and the Constitution becomes a piece of brittle parchment full of hollow promises.

8) Tea Partiers want Congress to authorize exploration of "proven energy reserves" to reduce dependence on "foreign energy sources from unstable countries" and "reduce regulatory barriers to all other forms of energy creation." Since this sounds a bit like something written by one of the folks that makes up the so-called Washington elite, I'll translate: "Proven energy reserves" means oil, presumably oil within U.S. borders. "Foreign energy sources" means imported oil. "All other forms of energy creation" include coal and nuclear. Both the Bush and Obama Administrations have actively supported (not just removed barriers to) alternative energy sources (solar, wind, bio-fuels) and Mr. Obama recently stepped up to support both new offshore drilling for oil and nuclear redevelopment. No major hydroelectric project has been prevented by regulatory barriers that I know of. The U.S. has been bullish on hydropower (a pro-hydro agenda that dates from President Roosevelt's (another socialist, by Tea Party standards) Depression Era Works Progress Admin. The Tea Party is strong in Nevada, but apparently has forgotten that Nevada owes both its water and its electric power to a socialist project, the Hoover Dam. (Ironic, eh?) So what we're left with is leaves coal, the other big polluter, which is what this is really about (revisit plank #2).

9) The Tea Party also wants a moratorium on Congressional earmarks until the budget is balanced and thereafter, earmarks require a two-thirds majority. This one made me laugh. Congress has recently passed bills designed to create jobs in the wake of the recession, and that has obscured for the moment what Tea Partiers don't seem to get: Congress has always been about the business of job creation. That's what pork is for. I wonder how many of those Tea Party folks have yet to realize that their reasonably secure jobs depend, at least indirectly, on the earmarked government dollars that their Senators and Representatives bring home to their state or district? If we cut all the pork projects tomorrow, a lot of Tea Party folks would find that their jobs — the ones they have been so worried would be shipped overseas — would simply disappear into the ether of Congressional inaction and gridlock. While we're on the subject of job protection, I'd just like to point our that in the Tea Party's free market, shipping your job overseas is something your employer is, well ... free to do, right? Either the market is free, and employers and Wall Street bankers can do whatever they think is necessary to increase profits and reduce costs — and we live with the bubbles and the bursts from their unrestrained greed — or the market isn't free. You can't have it both ways. Tea Partiers want to be free-marketeers only when it's someone else's job on the line.

10) Finally, the Tea Party wants a "permanent repeal of all tax hikes scheduled to begin in 2011." Let's look at the recent history on that. Politicians from both parties were so fearful of offending voters in the last two decades, that leaders of both parties have consistently proposed and approved tax cuts. this was done during an economic bubble when, presumably, they could have raised taxes a bit without too much pain and done something about controlling the then much smaller yearly budget shortfall. Far from favoring the poor, those cuts benefited most those who need tax cuts least, those in the upper middle and $200,000+ income circles in which many well-educated, successful Tea Party folk travel. Now that the bubble bash is over and we're struggling to pay the bills for the free-market excesses that got Tea Partiers where they are (and also brought retribution when the bubble burst), they want to repeal the Obama Admin.'s comparatively mild efforts to match taxation to our economic reality?

Tea Party folks may be well-educated in their narrow fields of endeavor and experience, but they appear to lack "big picture" knowledge of the political systems they hope to reform. They represent a conservative slice of the U.S. population that, unfettered by impediments such as unusual national or religious heritage, skin color and/or English as a second language, have established solid careers and settled lives in the predominant white establishment. They, therefore, have had little contact with the negative underside of public policy until recently, and, therefore, little real interest into looking into it (a common refrain among Tea Partiers is that, until recently, they "haven't paid much attention to politics"). While their recently piqued interest in the political sphere is laudable, there is a regrettable gap in their knowledge that explains, in part, the vagaries and inconsistencies in the CFA platform.

But lack of knowledge doesn't explain it by half. Let's forget the uncomfortable facts: that a vocal segment of the Tea Party movement supports the formation of citizen militias to "protect" them from their own federal government, that Tea Party adherents applaud secessionist rhetoric, and that Tea Party folks privately admit and sometimes publicly proclaim that their dislike of President Obama, in particular, goes beyond policy and politics and is rooted in race. It's no secret that white America is soon to become an American minority group. Under the veneer of Tea Party anger lies a vast reservoir of fear. It's what's left after all that is stripped away, however, that really is the crux of this matter. The fact that the CFA document was drafted for presentation on April 15th says it all: The Tea Party, for all it's concern about budgets and proper government function, is really motivated by the thing that motivates their "free" markets. Money. They believe that the current administration favors the poor and discriminates against the middle and upper income folks. It's my money. I earned, and I want to keep it. I don't want it to go to people who didn't earn it.

The Tea Party faithful want their government to work on a balanced budget, but have no intention of paying for it with any of their money. They want to safeguard their jobs in an ailing economy, but want to slash or kill government programs that support jobs and underpin a large portion of that economy. They want to tie their government's hands with two-thirds majority requirements that will stifle their government's ability to govern and will certainly prevent any action to alleviate the devastating financial and human costs that will certainly follow in the wake of the next economic bubble, which will surely come and burst spectucularly, if the Tea Party's "free" market becomes a reality.