Archive for October, 2003

One Nation Under God

Sunday, October 26th, 2003

A government, almost by definition, cannot help but endorse religion; a religion, at least, that is defined broadly enough. Religion is an explanatory world view or perspective on meaning based on essentially improvable axioms. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and even atheists arrive at their positions based on faith. Political systems, too, have their faith components and the two are subtly related and even interdependent.

The United States is a particularly instructive example since its establishment was not the result of the gradual accretion of tribal groups, but rather of a self-conscious political decision on the nature of man. The beliefs behind the decision to institute a new country are explicitly embodied in the Declaration of Independence. The document asserts on faith “…these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This assertion by the Founders was undoubtedly informed by their experience. These truths were so obvious to them that they believed them “to be self-evident.” It was certainly the product of an emerging political philosophy, but the Declaration was also a statement of faith about the nature of man. In a very fundamental sense, the Declaration of Independence is a religious document underpinned by those articles of faith. For a government to pass on its political beliefs to children and to nurture the acknowledgment of these articles of political faith are, in a broad sense, religious enterprises.

Indeed, the Founding Fathers explicitly asserted that the acceptance of the notion that God grants rights was essential to the long-term stability of the country. Thomas Jefferson asked rhetorically “can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?”

Moreover, the Founders believed that those governments that did not honor the inherent rights of man would ultimately suffer and that there was a Providence that was calling Americans to a higher moral and political duty. In 1776, George Washington wrote in his general orders, “the peace and safety of the Country now depends, under God, solely on the success of our arms.”

Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, consciously believing that the carnage of the Civil War was perhaps retribution for the sin of slavery, vowed that “this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

What then do we make of the First Amendment’s proscription that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” as it applies to the recent case taken up by the Supreme Court to determine the whether students reciting the words “under God” as part of the Pledge of Allegiance violates the Constitution?

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled in the favor of a father seeking to protect his daughter from the words “under God” as recited as part of the Pledge. It has long been recognized that people cannot be compelled to recite the Pledge. Parents can arrange to have their children opt out of the Pledge. However, this father is a devout atheist and demands further protection. He does not want his daughter to be embarrassed by being singled out for not reciting the Pledge. Now there is a question as to whether the father has standing to sue. The custodial mother and daughter have no objection to reciting the pledge and indeed are far more embarrassed by the father’s legal jihad, but let us leave that aside for a moment. Does asking students to recite the phrase “under God” as part of the Pledge violate the establishment clause?

The Supreme Court has long held that ceremonial evocation of “God” does not rise to the level of “establishment.” Is that the case we would wish to make here? Do we wish to argue that the words “under God” constitute just a throw away phrase used for rhetorical flourish but not having a real significance? If that is what we think, then why are we upset at the possibility that “under God” might be stripped from the Pledge?

At that time the First Amendment was written the Founders were trying to prohibit the national government from “establishing” a religion in the conventional sense of supporting churches and clergy. They wanted to prohibit Congress from declaring an official religion and supporting associated institutions financially and with other special privileges. Since then, the incorporation doctrine has extended this constraint to state governments as well. However, the original understanding of the clause did not include denuding the public square or even public discourse of religion. Indeed, does not the deliberate exclusion of religion from the public square constitute an endorsement of a non-theistic view of the world?

The thesis here is that governments have a right and obligation to teach and instill those principles necessary for its propagation. This is particularly true of governments based upon the inherent dignity of man, even if some find that dignity in a belief in God while others may find a different, less sacred, route to that conclusion. These precepts are part of a larger concept of religion that governments can not help but endorse. The phrase “under God” in the context of the Pledge means that our rights are not simply a convenient convention but a bedrock tenet of our collective faith. The phrase “under God” represents a conviction that we are called upon to meet our civic obligations.

Yes, the phrase “under God” is an endorsement of a religion, a civic religion whose precepts overlap what we generally consider religious faith. But it is the conventional, more all encompassing religion and religious institutions, the Founders did not wish us to formally establish. The pledge with the phrase “under God” is no more unconstitutional than the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address.

For an excellent discussion of the legal and ethical issues involved, much of which informed this article, the reader is directed to “Under God: The History of a Phrase,” James Pierson, The Weekly Standard, pages 19-23, October 27, 2003.

Civilizing Young Males

Sunday, October 19th, 2003

There are forests leveled by the mountains of sociological literature confirming what most people have intuitively known for quite a long time: Children who grow up with a mother and father fair better, on average, than children who are not so blessed. Part of the value of having parents of two different flavors is that men and women tend to bring two contrasting views of the world to their children.

If this were the Sixties, we would talk about the Yin and the Yang. This is a more grounded age less enamored with half-understood Eastern philosophy. We can, therefore, generalize that fathers tend to teach the competitive traits: a willingness to test oneself against others, a recognition of the value of strength, and poise under pressure. The traditional feminine perspective is more nurturing; more concerned about nesting, more attuned to grooming, dress, and accommodating other people’s feelings.

Of course, these are generalizations. There are Moms who teach their children how to throw a curve ball or drill a soccer ball into a net, while instilling a cutthroat competitiveness as fierce as any father could. There are Dads who read their children poetry and find just the right curtains for their kid’s room.

If all goes well, balanced children are produced. However, many young males typically need additional civilizing. Some young men, particularly, men without wives, tend to live sloppy undirected lives, eating out of pizza boxes, with clothes strewn about in unwashed piles, and the television perpetually tuned to ESPN. A walk through dorms on a college campus will confirm the observation that, as a rule, boys are less civilized than girls.

It is generally the job of young women to complete the job begun by boys’ mothers and finish the civilizing process. The charm of this civilizing process is behind the appeal of the campy Bravo channel show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The show begins with a young unkept fellow living alone in an apartment with a goal shared by most young men to impress a girl. The fellow genuinely wants to make a good impression, but has never acquired the social skills to do so. His apartment is dirty and unappealing. His clothes are comfortable but not fashionable. His hair is generally disheveled and he has not really acquired good grooming skills. He has not yet realized that being a gentleman and having good manners really means making the people around you feel comfortable. Even if he has recognized this, he has not quite figured out how to go about being a gentleman.

Each week, five gay men come to the rescue of some young straight man. Of course, the show takes advantage of the gay stereotype of being more fashion conscience. One fellow is an interior designer and helps create an inviting space out of a grime-filled dingy apartment. Another takes the young rube for a haircut and provides general grooming instructions. Our third gay hero takes the young straight man shopping for flattering cloths. A fourth instructor provides dating instructions, for example when to buy a small gift to impress a girl. The final gay fellow is an expert cook teaching the young man how to prepare a dinner for his girl friend or how to order for her in fine restaurant.

There are a number of reasons the show has grown in popularity. The “fab five” display a genuine concern for the prospects of their makeover candidate. What many fail to appreciate is that they are embarked on a fundamentally conservative enterprise: the civilizing of young males in society. The five gay men are fulfilling a traditionally feminine role in this context. One is reminded of the metaphor in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises where the steers are put in with the bulls to settle them down.

Although the series unapologetically plays on gay and straight stereotypes and it is clear that the producers have the unstated intention of portraying stereotypical homosexual behavior in a favorable light, the series works because it transcends it own propagandistic goals and features real human warmth and humor. The first attempt to feature homosexuality on a ongoing television series fell flat. Ellen Degeneres’s sitcom was too clumsy, preachy and actually mean-spirited. It died a merciful death. NBC’s Will and Grace that features homosexual characters is frankly too vulgar to be seen as anything but shameless exploitation.

Now in the interests of reciprocity, there should be a show Straight Eye for the Queer Guy where five straight guys help a stereotypical gay fellow learns to appreciate some traditionally male activities. There could be a sports counselor who helps with appreciating sports; a cuisine guy who teaches the gay student how to brew hot chili or to barbecue; a fashion advisor who explains the convenience of jeans, T-shirts and sweatpants; a cultural guide who takes the gay fellow hunting to appreciate primal urges at dominance, and interior design consultant who help our gay student purchase large-screen televisions and foosball games.

It is apparent that good humor and open friendliness has an audience

A Hero and Some Villians from the California Recall

Sunday, October 12th, 2003

The California recall of Davis and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger may prove to have significant political import. These events may mark the resurgence of a moribund California Republican Party after former Governor Peter Wilson led it to long-term minority status. Alternatively, they may mark only a temporary success for Schwarzenegger and prove that celebrity can prop the prospects of an individual, but it is not sufficient to buttress the structure of a political party. Part of the outcome will depend upon whether improved national economic performance in the next 18 months alleviates California’s particularly acute budget shortfalls. In the short term, we can find some heroes and villains.

Hero Nominee: Susan Estrich. No one can claim that Susan Estrich is not a political partisan. Certainly, as the national head of Governor Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign, she would not assert that claim. Estrich is now a self-described Liberal commentator on Fox News. Moreover, Estrich is a rape victim and this experience has motivated her to lobby for laws protecting rape victims and workplace protections of women. She has specialized in sex discrimination law for years. Estrich had every professional and political motivation to use for political advantage charges against Schwarzenegger for fondling and perhaps assaulting women. Instead, Estrich took the intellectually honest stance of agnosticism with respect to the charges until the evidence was better vetted and anger at the political exploitation of the issue by an obviously partisan Los Angeles Times.

If Schwarzenegger was indeed guilty of being a sexual predator and had perhaps even crossed the line to illegality, such information is a legitimate topic for news coverage. Estrich agrees, but believed that given that the Los Angeles Times had been working on the story for seven weeks, last minute revelations smacked of a political hack job. True or false, Schwarzenegger had no real chance to respond late in the campaign. Estrich explained:

“What this story [the L.A. Times expose] accomplishes is less an attack on Schwarzenegger than a smear on the press. It reaffirms everything that is wrong with the political process. Anonymous chargers from years ago made in the closing days of a campaign undermine fair politics.”

It is theoretically possible that the timing of the charges leveled in the L.A. Times, falling just days before the election, was a coincidence of the investigative process. But given the paper’s editorial stance and the tenor of coverage, that possibility strains credulity.

As it happened, the stench of unfairness wafting up from the L.A. Times articles repulsed those for whom the issue of womanizing might have been dispositive. The L. A. Times was too ham-handed and its last minute revelations backfired. Attack politics lost.

Hypocrite Nominee: California feminist groups. The same feminist groups who overlooked charges of groping and even rape against former president Bill Clinton by women who were willing to be identified, suddenly became indignant about the mostly anonymous charges of sexual harassment against Schwarzenegger. The California chapter of the National Organization of Women fumed against Schwarzenegger, “Your behavior was not playful, it was illegal, it was sexual harassment.”

When questioned about the difference between the behaviors of Clinton and Schwarzenegger, Patricia Foulkkrod of Codepink explained,

“The difference was that Clinton was so brilliant. If Arnold was a brilliant pol and had this thing about inappropriate behavior, we’d figure a way of getting around it. I think it’s to our detriment to go on too much about groping. But it’s our way in. This is really about the GOP trying to take California in 2004 and our trying to stop it.”

In other words, Schwarzenegger’s crime was his party affiliation. It is all about party and not about ideology. If Schwarzenegger had been a Democrat, any poor women who were groped or assaulted could be sacrificed in the higher interests of the sisterhood. Schwarzenegger’s pro-choice position, though he is against partial birth abortion and for parental notification, was not sufficient protection against verbal harangues by NOW and other feminists groups.

It is possible that had the campaign lasted longer, Republicans who had complained how Clinton’s behavior, setting aside for a moment his alleged crimes of perjury and obstruction of justice, might have defended Schwarzenegger out of political expediency. We don’t know. The campaign was too short. The charges were not fully vetted. Indeed, Schwarzenegger’s background might have prevented him from obtaining the Republican nomination had there been a primary. In addition, many of the more Conservative Republicans voted for Tom McClintok not for Schwarzenegger. Hence, the California feminist groups can put the trophy of hypocrisy on their mantel. It will likely be displayed there for at least a few election cycles.

A Secure and Accurate Voting System

Sunday, October 5th, 2003

Given they rapidly evolving and seemingly unpredictable recall election in California, it would not be surprising if the election results are close. Ever eager to yank sympathetic courts into the election process, Democrats are already raising funds for a potential legal challenge in California. Perhaps now, before the heat of the post-election recriminations, is a good time to examine the issue of election procedures in general. There are at least three features one would expect from voting procedures. In order of priority they are: auditability, user friendliness, and rapid availability of results.

It should always be possible to recount individual original ballots. The most common way to do this, of course, is to use hand-marked paper ballots that are hand counted. While it may be possible to make such ballots easy to fill out, there will always remain the issue of ballot interpretation. On a hand-completed ballot, some people will invariably select two candidates for the same office and save for the most rabid of Florida Democrats there is no fair way to intuit which candidate the person really intended to vote for. Others will select a single candidate, but make their marks (whether by checking a box or punching a hole in a card) so lightly that frail and sometimes biased human judgment will be required to interpret the ballot.

Some jurisdictions use mechanical voting machines or touch screen computers for balloting. However, most of these systems do not provide individual vote accountability. With voting machines, votes can only be tracked down to the voting machine level. It is difficult to determine if there is tampering and if there is, all the votes for a machine must be discarded. As for touch screen computers, Salon magazine has recently suggested that it is far too easy to hack into such systems and make untraceable changes to vote totals. Even if safeguards are improved, there is no individual vote traceability to confirm a result if a question of machine security arises. One popular system uses Microsoft Access as its database and Microsoft products have never been renowned for their airtight computer security.

On the other hand, mechanical voting machines and computer touch screens can be made very user friendly. The letters can be very large and voters can be warned against and stopped from voting for more than one candidate. Moreover, there is no ambiguity in any particular vote.

Americans are an impatient people and we want are election results now. Of course, a network of touch screen computer system offers the prospect of the most rapid election returns. If security could be guaranteed, networked touch screen computer systems could provide results almost instantaneously.

The following voting system would meet all three requirements we have imposed. First, use touch screen computer systems for their user friendliness and rapid reporting ability. Second, establish a non-partisan computer security authority that would certify the general security of such systems and their networking. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, have each voting machine produce a paper version of each ballot. The paper version would have a time-tagged human readable listing of an individual’s results so that it could be verify by the voter. In addition, this paper ballot would also include a computer readable (perhaps a bar code) listing of a voter’s selections so that votes could be unambiguously recounted in a timely manner. There should never be a need for a recount, but should a recount be ordered, each iteration should produce precisely the same count each time.