Businesses, Hammers, and Other Tools in Indiana

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While conservatives scramble  to quell the furor caused by the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed by the Indiana State Legislature, describing it all as a big misunderstanding, I would suggest that whatever the law’s “real” intent, it is largely irrelevant now.  The legislation has become a cultural gestalt, something different from and something more than itself which betrays the absurd intrusion of religion in the quasi-democratic values and priorities that drag on American society today.

Serious people can debate the “real” intent of the law.  Go at it.  What matters now are the lines drawn on either of what people think the law means.  At the heart of the disagreement is a flawed notion of who — and quite literally what — has rights and how they should be exercised and protected.  On one side of this disagreement, religion has merely become an abused prop for weak arguments.

For example, a friend posted on Facebook her support for Apple CEO Tim Cook, a gay man, who wrote an opinion critical of the Indiana legislation.  Comments to her post were hostile, not only attacking Tim Cook and his position, but my friend as well.

Most of these posts I would not share, but part of one  serves my purpose here.  It is the following:

“Equality doesn’t mean people need to sin for homosexuals. If businesses morally believe that homosexuality is wrong they shouldn’t be made to partake. That isn’t freedom.”

There is a lot of moral judgement — and prejudice — in this genuinely misinformed comment. In particular I am puzzled by the idea that “if businesses morally believe that homosexuality is wrong they shouldn’t be made to partake.”  How, exactly, does a business believe anything?

Now I presume our critic really means a business owner shouldn’t need to “partake” and “sin” because doing so “isn’t freedom.”  (That raises questions, too, ones that are not entirely irrelevant.  What does this person think a business owner might be coerced to do that would be a sin?)

In the real world, businesses are tools.  They are a means of organizing an endeavor and an enterprise.  To say that a business “believes” anything is nothing different than saying a hammer believes X or Y.  It is absurd.

And a business owner is someone who owns a tool.  A business owner should not be allowed to use that tool to attack or oppose the rights of another person anymore than he should be allowed to use a hammer to do so.  It is that simple.

For pragmatic reasons Indiana likely will change it is poorly conceived “freedom act”, but that doesn’t change the underlying issues.  Increasingly, making claims for religious freedom has replaced both thoughtfulness and tolerance in our society.  You might think religion would inspire just the opposite, but too often it doesn’t.  And maybe that’s the case because all of this isn’t about religion in the first place.  Not really.

A Sentence from an Old Book

I am trying to write about a sentence I like very much, but I am struggling. It is from the Forward to a 1958 edition of The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith. The sentence affects me with something like homesickness and nostalgia…this despite the fact that I experienced nothing of this era or manner of living.

The sentences is this:

“Since I sailed for Switzerland in the early summer of 1955 to begin work on this book I have accumulated a large and cosmopolitan set of obligations.”

Isn’t that fantastic? First of all, we don’t live like that anymore; even those of us who can don’t. We don’t sail, we jet. And when was the last time one spoke so easily of a schedule so that they described it in the broad terms of “the early summer of 1955″? Today we are literally tethered to tasks and itineraries on our phones and computers which track us to the hour, if not the minute, and certainly not by the season.

And what are those “large and cosmopolitan set of obligations”? I presume those obligations are work and “work” rarely sounds so meaningful, does it? Or perhaps work indeed is nothing but work and obligations are something else all together, something better. Obligations. Wouldn’t it be nice to be bound to obligations, and a set of cosmopolitan ones at that?

That sentence says a lot.

When a Guest Host is a Square Peg and the Hole is Round

Mike Max filled in for John Hines today over at WCCO 830.  No really issue there.  Mike Max is a likable guy and has a rather quirky, but entertaining, way about him.  (I love those Dickey’s BBQ endorsements!)

But Mike Max is sports, right?  And he’s good at sports.  The poor guy was out of his element today when the subject of Benjamin Netanyahu‘s speech to United States Congress came up.  Mike boiled it down to the simplest terms and his callers followed suit.

Mike suggested that our support for Israel is about terrorism.  Well, maybe…perhaps that is an ancillary reason for supporting Israel, but it much more complicated and nuanced than that.

A number of self-described “informed” people called in, mostly critical of Obama and our what they seem to think of the president’s weakness and wrong direction.  But there wasn’t a like of sense in anything said.  Opinions truly trumped facts.  They didn’t square with complexity or politics of our relationship — let’s call it co-dependency — with Israel.  It was discouraging.

Mike Max lamented that he no longer expects to see in his lifetime solutions to many of the problems surrounding us now.  That’s discouraging, too; and very sad.  But he is probably correct.  Like Mike Max, I like to think I grew up in a more hopeful age.  I’m guessing he and I are close in age.  Unlike the mood of just a generation or two in the past — when things were not necessarily all that great, by the way — we don’t seem to have much hope today.  More significantly, we don’t seem to have much care.  While listening to Mike’s show today, that seemed obvious.

The callers have such a simple — and simple minded — view of things.  It is an easy Manichean understanding of good and bad.  It is what it is simply because we have chosen to make it so.  The so-called informed callers have prejudices and opinions, not information, at least not information that can be processed in any meaningful way.  And without meaningfulness, there isn’t hope and there certainly isn’t care.

Mike Max didn’t exactly fit in this discussion.  So in a strange way, when he sounded like he was throwing is hands in the air and complained that hope had disappeared with his youth, he had made a rather brilliant point…but missed the point.  And that gave voice to a loose dialogue that slowly revealed a lot.

It isn’t so much what is going on in Washington or Israel or with ISIS or Iraq that matters, rather it is what is going on here.  If we are going to restore a sense of hope, we have to stop being intellectually detached from events in the world.  People need to engage ideas and sometimes admit they are wrong or admit that the other guy is right.  Somewhere in between lies a better way.  But we are not there.

Is the writer of this tweet willing to concede that religion is nothing but a tool?

Take a look at this Twitter post.

AdolfJoeBiden TweetThe writer here — AdolfJoeBiden — is mocking Obama, supposedly on his position for limited control of firearms in the United States.  Implied here is the argument that we should hold people responsible, and not blame guns, which are strangely innocent in the gun control debate, for the harm they cause.  But to make this smug observation, the writer has to take contradictory positions.  Let me explain.

AdolfJoeBiden clearly disagrees with Obama not holding Islam responsible for terrorism.  Perhaps Obama is straining too hard to distance himself from drawing a parallel between Islam and terrorism.  Let’s face it, the terrorists identify with Islam.  ISIS (or ISIL) declares itself an “Islamic State”, an Islamic caliphate.  So it isn’t true that there is no connection.  There clearly is.

But do we really think Obama is saying there is no connection?  For politically and socially pragmatic reasons, he isn’t even going there.  Instead he is saying something very different.  He is saying “no religion is responsible.”  He has not said terrorists are not acting in the name of Islam.  They are, and these are very different points.

Continue reading

Do We Have a Useful Free Rider Experiment Here?

100113mmattMAGWhen a public program is proposed such as free mass transit or free medical care, the idea gets attention, for both good and bad reasons.  Some people get optimistic, some get alarmed.  There will be arguments for and against, of course, but at the core of these opposing positions is something like a free rider problem.  The opposing sides will have different perspectives.  Does the proposal get enough support on the one hand and does it deserve support on the other, for example.

A true free rider problem comes along when people are voluntarily asked to pay for something like a public good, park admission, perhaps.  It is presumed that enough will pay to support the park, but if everyone volunteers not to pay, then the project fails.  Again, you will have different views on this.  Some will fine if some people do not — or cannot — pay, others will see this as an injustice or an abuse.

People tend to be petty — some more than others — when they believe someone else might be getting something free for which they have to pay.  People who primarily drive on highways lament subsidies for mass transit.  People who ride buses complain about the priorities for roads.  Never mind that smart investment in both roads and transit have beneficial externalities that serve both.

There is an ethic, especially in the United States, that you should earn and pay your way.  Even in matters of life and death such as health insurance, there are millions of people unwilling to support even the most basic health care subsidies for people who need them.  I think that is the dark side of our nation that people like to believe is based on so-called Christian values, but that’s a different discussion.  That is a moral argument.

Continue reading

Gun, Violence, and Rape or Gun Violence and Rape? There’s a Difference

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Much has been said and written about a recent story in the New York Times that describes a trend among gun rights advocates to use defense against sexual assault as a reason for legalizing gun possession on college campuses.  Obviously some people support it — it is being proposed by state political leaders, after all — and some people don’t support it.  For my part, I think the proposition at best is obviously naïve.  But even if you find yourself in agreement with these pro-gun arguments, there’s something about it that is chilling.

Let’s take a look at just one supporter’s rationale.

Continue reading