Sunday, November 17, 2019

Free Speech

Germany supports freedom of speech, but you can get arrested for lying about the holocaust.

In the U.S., neo-Nazis can speak their mind. So can communists.

This wasn't always the case. President Woodrow Wilson thought that "any language disloyal to the government, the Constitution, the military, or the flag" was out of line in wartime and promoted the Sedition Act.

Perhaps the most consistent advocate of free speech in the US is the American Civil Liberties Union. In its first years, the ACLU didn't win many cases, but among its founders was Helen Keller, not easily deterred by obstacles and failures.

The ACLU's cases are often controversial. They have supported:
  • NRA: in opposition to a gun registry
  • Communist party, although during the cold war support faltered
  • Unions
  • Citizens United, though they argued for full transparency of donors
  • Jehovah's Witnesses: in 1943, a couple thousand children were kicked out of West Virginia schools for refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag. The ACLU defended their religious liberty.
  • KKK: as early as 1923 the ACLU defended their right to hold meetings
Just about anyone can find an ACLU cause or client to be upset about. But the organization has consistently argued for freedom of expression. And, for the most part, Americans have supported this part of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

There are limits to free speech: threats, yelling "fire" in a crowded public place, slander, lying to Congress, perjury, lying to shareholders. But as a society we are pretty lax about what people can say. On balance, I think, that's a good thing, since the alternative can so easily be corrupted.

But I do wonder sometimes. And I am not alone. About half of the US may think it is time to amend the 1st amendment.

There is an aspect to freedom of speech that I find unnerving. We grew up saying "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." But we know this is often not the case. There is such a thing as verbal abuse, and it can be more harmful than a physical punch. So, if words have the power to harm, shouldn't serious attacks with them be taken as seriously as with fists?

The power of words is not a new concept. Plato thought music and other arts should be censored because they could corrupt the masses. "The tongue has no bones, but it can break bones" is an old Sicilian proverb, according to Eric Hoffer (a more romantic rendition says it can break a heart).

Nazi propaganda set the stage for the holocaust. Radio stations in Rwanda played a significant role in the genocide of Tutsis in 1994. Before people were aware of the effects, perhaps they said, Don't worry! It's just words.

The president of the US has exercised his freedom of speech by lying to the people 13,500 times in 1000 days in office. He further exercises his right of free speech by accusing media who expose his falsehoods of, you guessed it, lying. Not only does he abuse the right of freedom of expression, but he also uses his position to inhibit this right for others. This is (mostly) not illegal. It is pathetic.

And yet, if this president, who calls the press the enemy of the people, were allowed to shut down all who fail to adore him, the results would be worse than letting him spew lies upon lies. If he had his way and dictated what was good and acceptable, our society would be even more vulnerable to the lies.

Of course, US politics are not unique. In Britain, lies were the means to a pro-Brexit vote. Just one example: Boris Johnson held up a kippered herring and blamed the EU for excessive and expensive regulations on shipping and packing. Never mind that the regulations he protested are in fact fully British.

Hungary has restricted the press so that only things favorable to the government can be broadcast or published. On the books, the law is strong on freedom of expression, but the government favors media owned by president-friendly oligarchs and squeezes out any media outlet critical of them. You see how it works.

Facebook has decided to limit falsehoods in some cases, but not for politicians running for office. I don't understand why those seeking office as public servants are exempt from rules of civility that apply to the rest of us, but perhaps Facebook couldn't face the loss of revenue. Whatever the reason, the larger dilemma of what to allow on Facebook's platform illustrates changes in media that have us scrambling for new rules.

The problems of allowing free speech, despite abuse of this right, seem smaller than the problems of restricting it. So we allow a president to lie without ceasing and billionaires to use unlimited resources to mislead us to line their pockets.

How much abuse of a freedom will we tolerate to avoid the abuse of its restriction? After how much abuse will a right be taken away? What price will we pay for squandering our freedom of speech on lies? When one contractor defrauds his clients, 20 honest contractors submit to increased regulation; will the same hold for those entrusted with maintaining this country? Will we eventually respond to the worst offenders' abuse of free speech by restricting this right for all?

Given their history and their willingness to address it, the Germans' ban on holocaust denial seems a reasonable restriction. Perhaps here too we will impose some additional sensible limits. I don't think we will prohibit false advertising in political campaigns, despite a recent record setter. But maybe we'll at least require any PAC to publicize all their major donors' names. We may not pass a law to this effect, but it seems Facebook and television networks could set such a rule for any group paying for a political ad.  I don't know, what are your ideas? Shouldn't we do something?

When a Head of State uses freedom of speech to publicly lie to his nation an average of over 4,000 times per year, then that freedom is not worth much. When elected members of congress repeat those lies for political gain, free speech is cheap. When a nominee for the highest court in the land lies about his qualifications, freedom of expression is a joke. The abuse of freedom of speech by those in power is an insult to all who have protected this right.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019


One liddle' word shall fell him.

OK, anyone can make a mistake. Hyphen, apostrophe: a slip of the thumb. No big deal.

But there is more going on in this tweet.

First, yes, it was an apostrophe, not a hyphen. A minor issue, easily cleared up with an "oops-I-goofed" comment (not likely forthcoming).

Second, the apostrophe served no purpose, unless random punctuation has some significance unknown to any non-genius.

Third, some copy editor realized the apostrophe was superfluous and did a kindness by removing it.

Fourth, in someone's mind this edit was evidence of a grand conspiracy by CNN and mainstream media against the president.

When (avoid-the-)Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham says “I worked with John Kelly, and he was totally unequipped to handle the genius of our great President” what is she referring to?

Perhaps it is our great President's colossal imagination. Who else could perceive a nation-wide media conspiracy from such a liddle' issue?

Or perhaps it is his magnificent good sense now displayed in no longer using this descriptor for Adam Schiff. He has shifted to shifty Schiff. Genius.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

A Lesson from a Farmer

It pleases me to say the smartest boss I ever had was a farmer. I may have worked under better managers or supervisors, but never anyone smarter (and I've had several very smart ones).

I was fresh out of high school and landed a job in one of my dream lands, Montana. I had spent my elementary-school days in Iowa, where my friend Gary and I planned on becoming bachelor farmers. By high school, I had given up the bachelor idea, but still felt a pull toward farming. Now I had a job on a 400-acre crop and dairy farm where I more or less became one of the family, with wages that included all I could eat. Life was good.

My boss had tried college for a couple years, but was bored with the "bone-head" math and other courses his adviser had recommended. One day, while tending the college grounds as a part-time job, he came to the realization that he liked mowing lawns more than his classes and decided to go back to the farm, where one form of entertainment in his precious-little spare time was to work out math problems from his brother's courses toward a Master of Science degree. There were few topics that he couldn't discuss intelligently. My boss was someone I wanted to emulate.

Emulate him I did. When it came to politics, I accepted his point of view and made it my own. I became passionate in defense of the president, insisting that people should quit investigating his administration and interfering with his job. Once, over Sunday dinner, I joined an argument with my boss's more-liberal sister and earned a compliment from him.

Throughout the Watergate investigation, I never stopped supporting Nixon. When it was over, I continued to think he had been mistreated. By then I was no longer working in Montana but was milking at a dairy farm in Washington, saving up for college.

I was on my way to my first year in college in Michigan when I stopped to visit my Montana farm family. Eventually, I got around to asking my former boss what he thought about the president's recent resignation. I suspect I was hoping for some venom to reinforce my own. But his answer surprised me. He said, "He really disappointed us."

He wasn't referring to the resignation. He was referring to what Nixon had done.

I was quiet. For the first time I considered my camp might be in the wrong. Many of my ardent defenses fell. Nixon was no beleaguered hero; he had betrayed my hero, and all of us. It was a lesson I am thankful for.

I'm not proud that I came so late to a realization of what had long been evident. It came late for my boss too, but it took his blunt and disappointed realism to finally shake me out of my stupor.

Let's be patient with those who come late to their senses, and let's embrace them without spending too much time berating them for earlier misconceptions.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019


I recently noticed a bumper sticker: Taxation is Theft. This definition of taxes would, I suppose, account for bitter opposition to taxes.

If taxation is theft, all taxes are immoral. Some of the rhetoric we hear these days would support this view: government must be limited because all it does is steal from people. That's the definition of taxation. In this view, any government tax is the equivalent to a warlord taking rice by force from subsistence farmers and villagers.

I've heard complaints about government subsidies for Amtrak. People should drive their own cars, the argument goes. But if there were no taxes, whose roads would you drive on?

Well, some taxes are OK—the ones that keep us from being incapacitated. This is known as libertarianism. Other than the essentials, any governance is illegitimate. But who decides what is essential? Is a defense budget that equals the sum of the next closest ten countries essential? How about five countries? Are all roads essential, or just some? What about national parks? Who decides what is essential? How does one get consensus?

A colleague, a few years ago, was upset with Warren Buffet for remarking that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. Buffet thinks that, as one of the world's richest people, his fair share should at least equal the rate his employees pay. My colleague is as reliable and helpful as any workmate could ask for. But this perspective on taxes baffles me. On what basis would anyone be upset by Buffet's assessment? Why would his recommendation of parity be offensive?

I suppose that, if one views taxation as theft, any support of taxes must be challenged.

So, challenge me.

Taxes, in my view, are simple efficiency. I suppose that the street on my block could be paid for and maintained by the four families who live here. At the most basic level, the four of us might agree to pool our money and have the street maintained. Or maybe three families agree, and the fourth goes along or perhaps moves away in protest. If two or three of the four families on our block decided against pooling our resources, then we would each be stuck determining which section of street was ours and would have to maintain it ourselves. To pay for it, we might charge cars that pass, just as boys with shovels, hoes, and a bamboo gate charged us when we passed on the otherwise poorly maintained roads in Liberia some years ago. This does not strike me as particularly efficient or practical.

It is more efficient, of course, to maintain streets at a city level than by four-family groups; I would much rather that my street be maintained by a municipality, or the road to my farm by a county or state. Thus, taxes. If a majority of us agree on pooling our resources, I suppose the dissenters can still consider taxation as theft. But it seems rather unneighborly.

Our country was founded on anti-tax sentiments, some say: remember the Boston Tea Party (and start a libertarian political movement called the Tea Party). Actually, what colonial Americans protested was taxation without representation. The American experiment was representational democracy, not "no new taxes." If you have a vote, you are represented. You may disagree with the majority, but you have your chance to speak.

So why this wave of sentiment against taxes? Well, taxes are easy to dislike. Ben Franklin lumped them in with death as both inevitable and unpleasant.

But there's also a chance we have been hoodwinked. I notice that the ones speaking most loudly against taxes are not suggesting a reduction in our defense budget. It just so happens that some very large and influential companies make billions of dollars from our defense budget. Other lobbyists for low taxes are some (not all) of the richest Americans and American companies. They find it easy to echo Ben Franklin in disparaging taxes, and they find a willing audience among people who benefit far less from low taxes than they do. I find it curious that they find such support.

We have been told by some of these lobbyists that rich people need lower taxes because this stimulates spending and is good for the economy. But there is little evidence for this. Our economy was at its peak during the 1950s–1970s, when taxes on the richest Americans reached 70 percent and higher. I'm not saying high taxation on the wealthy necessarily leads to a better economy, but I think we have a pretty good case that it does not devastate the economy as some would have us believe. And why would one believe that extra money in the hands rich people helps the economy whereas extra money in the hands of poor people leads to irresponsibility? Is it because they haven't "earned" some of it? Well, that would be a good argument for high taxes on inheritance.

The wealthiest Americans make much of their money through capital gains, which are taxed at a lower rate than wages. So a plumber who works long hours to earn maybe $160,000 a year pays taxes at a higher percentage than the venture capitalist, who makes 100 times that much. Go figure. This is what Warren Buffet noticed, and he admitted that maybe we should rethink it.

I won't claim to understand all the ins and outs of capital gains and economics, but doesn't something seem fishy here?

Different cultures and countries might have higher tolerance for taxes than others. Right now, ours seems to have a collectively low tolerance (while we pine for the good old days of the '50s). But much of this animosity seems driven by an ideology: taxes = bad. What makes them bad? If it's what the people agree to, then it's democracy.

Don't you think democracy is more important than an ideological economic preference? I'm pretty sure the founders of our country did.

Friday, July 26, 2019

By Association

I had the notion that Trump's shadier associations would be one more reason for evangelicals to distance themselves from him. While this may be true for some white evangelicals, most, including some of the most prominent, have consistently increased their support.

Trump has a long history of chumming up with ne'er-do-wells and criminals. Never mind the mafia connections from years gone by, several of his closest associates were convicted as a result of an investigation into shady connections with Russian propagandists. But none on the religious right have complained or found cause for concern.

Perhaps I have been blind to a darker reality: are evangelicals who choose to associate with Trump simply another group given to cheating? Is the attraction to him less a means to an end than a natural affinity? Is permission to be cruel what they long for? Do they revel in the lies, fear, and repression?

This wouldn't be new. Of all the people Jesus could have chosen to criticize, it was mainly the pious and principled religious leaders that he condemned. In retaliation, they allied themselves with a brutal political leader to silence the rebel.

People who intend to speak for God in justifying their privilege and excluding the down-and-out, or who, like Job's friends, blame victims for their afflictions do not make God smile. Leaders of such groups rally otherwise good people by appealing to their baser instincts (which we all have). The devout become villains. But so willingly?

It seems many evangelicals don't just tolerate Trump's bad behavior; they embrace and own it. They cheer him on and emulate his behavior. Exclusivity and bigotry appear to be essential to their political leanings. They are willing and enthusiastic associates. If even any of their own so much as argues that detained children should be allowed toothbrushes, the president of an evangelical university will publicly sneer at their credentials, forbidding any criticism of the perceived party line.

Perhaps we owe Trump thanks for this favor: he has shined a light on our dirtiness. He spread his BS on the evangelical fields, and a bumper crop of our weedy selves responded, choking out better impulses. Seeing ourselves for who we really are could be a first step toward redemption. If only we look in the mirror.

In 2020, the polls may prove that white evangelicals could stomach the lies and cruelty for only four years. I suspect, though, that a majority will fail the test and soil the church again. How many people will decide they have had enough of the stench and leave the church? How many already have? What does this church look like to those outside it?

Saturday, July 6, 2019


This week, on the 4th of July, Justin Amash declared his independence. He had already proven himself a maverick by daring to buck party hall. He actually read the Mueller report and came to a reasoned conclusion that there are grounds to impeach our president. He then had the audacity to voice his opinion.

His moneyed, till-now supporters, such as the DeVoses and Meijers, took his stand as intolerable and immediately distanced themselves from him. Ah, the price of a conscience.

I was grateful to hear my congressman voice his honest opinion about a serious matter, despite the backlash he knew would come. He decided that principle is worth risking his position for. This is rare among humans and even more rare among politicians. And his courage has gotten me thinking about my own positions.

Libertarian Amash is toward the right of what used to be the Republican Party. He has argued for small government, thought Obama took too much control, and then stayed consistent when the next president took it farther. Frankly, I haven't agreed with many of his positions and policies. But now I'm wondering whether to support him in the next election.

Amash's assessment is that our two-party system is broken. He may be right. Or his view may be exaggerated by the pain of watching the party he loves become unlovable (not to mention unloving). I dare say the Democratic Party is far broader than the ever-shrinking, ever-narrowing Republicans but it would do well to continue to expand its coalition rather than become more partisan.

As a Democrat, I welcome inclusiveness, just as, as a Christian, I abhor exclusion. The debate between the broad variety of perspectives that make up the Democratic Party is good music, except when it becomes rancorous (and rancor is today's political currency). But I don't think the party can expand enough to include Justin Amash's Tea Party perspectives.

So should I as a Democrat vote for Justin Amash as an Independent? I think so.

His courage, principle, and honesty are virtues that all sides should appreciate. Right now, these may be of even more value to American democracy than policy. When he tempers my party's policies with his bona fide conservatism, we know we can trust him.

If a wave of disgruntled Republicans, appreciative Democrats, and fed-up independents vote him back into office, I will celebrate.

Monday, April 8, 2019


I am racist.

Sure, I have friends who are minorities and people of color. But I am white, middle-class, Protestant, male.

I spent years in another country among people of a different culture, but I am still bound by and to my own culture. Learning about another culture is a way to expand my perspectives and to better appreciate and critique my own culture. But it would be a mistake to say that, because I am aware of other cultures, I am no longer biased by my own.

I dare say I might have made the same mistake that Megyn Kelly did, in thinking and saying that wearing blackface was no big deal. I have been woefully unaware of the history of the minstrel shows and Jim Crow, which is evidence in itself of my cultural and racial ignorance—one form of racism.

While many were roundly condemning Kelly for her comments, Joyce Carol Oates tweeted a more nuanced view:
You could read "they might wish" to mean that it is possible that they do wish or that they ought to wish, or both. I admit to naiveté and commit to wishing to be corrected. I think many people of color are willing to forgive our ignorance, provided we see it as that. I expect we are more gracious in accepting their forgiveness than we are their correction. Let's try to accept both.

Our church council is reading the book Waking up White, by Debby Irving, in which she admits to not knowing she needed to be woke. She makes the point that race is more a social construct than a genetic category. Our DNA is as likely to be similar to that of those from other "races" and continents as to that of our neighbors. There is essentially no such thing as race. Except in our minds.

Race may be no more than a social and mental construct, but that doesn't mean racism and its effects are not real. And, if racial differences did not exist, we would still separate us from them. The tendency to distinguish ourselves from (and over) others is not limited to physical characteristics. In Liberia and Rwanda some people were willing to kill others based solely on which tribal group they belonged to. In the US, when immigration from Italy and Ireland was peaking, many Americans proclaimed such people inferior—and to be feared and excluded.

The seeds of racism extend beyond race. Ethnocentrism involves judging another culture for having different standards and values than our own. Even within a culture, we separate and then compare. We discriminate against those who are different from the norm. We discriminate against people of different religions or sex or preferences. We tend to believe that us have it more right than them. If I had been indirectly told my whole life that people of my culture were intellectually inferior, I might be inclined to believe it. As it is, I grew up thinking that my people were the standard against which all others should be judged.

We need to recognize this tendency to compare ourselves to, and judge, others. It might be harmless to say Italians are friendly or the Vietnamese are polite. But if I say this, I'm offering you a clue that I don't know very many Italians or Vietnamese very well. If I did, I'd have met a few Italians who didn't treat me as a friend and at least one Vietnamese who was rude. And such generalizations, when negative, become an excuse for treating whole groups with less respect than we treat people like us.

When such judgments become part of our cultural fabric, we have institutionalized our bigotry. Injustice follows. And blame. When we make scapegoats of those who are different, when we think our problems are the fault of those people, we tilt toward evil. It may start as only a grudge but it can be fanned into something much worse.

A demagogue knows our tendency to consider others lower than ourselves and harnesses the power of fear and hatred to his own advantage. He permits us to hate others while assuring us of our superiority over them. This has a powerful attraction.