Let’s stop applauding irresponsible government

A government shutdown should never be used as a bargaining chip. Politicians who create scenarios that will shut down the government unless their demands are met are not heroes. They’re blackmailers. They’re playing with the lives of the American people as though we are worth nothing.

Who does a shutdown hurt? The people. Obviously, people who work directly for the government are directly affected. But so are all the businesses that rely on government contracts, and the people who work for those businesses. The government-funded services that are cut back, and the people who depend on them. The improvement projects that are put on hold or canceled, and the people who live in communities that are going downhill.

Cutting off funding to governmental organizations or organizations that depend on government money also means that those organizations can’t plan their budgets, which means they can’t add jobs or purchase in bulk. This means they waste money purchasing at full price while their organization actually shrinks.

Is “the government” an enemy that is hurt by this loss of funding, that we can feel proud to punish? No. The government is not an entity that we have to fight. The government is how we, the people, manage the things we all need: safety, roads, schools, mail, other services. At least, it’s supposed to be. When we view “the government” as an enemy, we not only oversimplify the issue, we excuse our own culpability in the nation’s problems.

So who, other than the people, is a shutdown punishing? Does it really hurt our members of Congress for the government to shut down? No, of course not. Not only are they paid handsomely, many of them are independently wealthy. That’s why it’s easy for them to not worry about passing a proper budget for years and years.

Does a shutdown hurt the president? Assuming he’s the enemy (and not the publicly-elected “CEO” of our country), will the shutdown hit him where it hurts? Well, it might make him look bad, but that’s about it. That “win” is nothing compared to the effect the shutdown has on the American people.

Government shutdown tactics are a political maneuver taken by cowards and bullies who can’t accept not getting their way. These legislators don’t care about the people. If they did, they would stop worrying about passing federal mandates on social issues or fighting losing battles and instead work on improving quality of life for the average American. A real representative of the people would focus on incentivizing better jobs and wages, on improving public spaces, on making sure budgets are planned and balanced and funded like clockwork.

But all these people care about is keeping their own jobs. If they do something “boring” like simply keeping the government running, it might not be exciting enough. And if they change something and it doesn’t work, they might get voted out of office. So they try to get us fired up on issues they know can never be resolved. They cast themselves as heroes in ideological wars. They make it look like they’re accomplishing something, when really they’re doing absolutely nothing.

This behavior from people who are supposed to represent the needs of everyone, and not just themselves, is inexcusable. We need to stop excusing it.

Questions asked during the presidential debates

Of all the presidential debates, the only one I actually watched was yesterday’s debate for third-party candidates moderated by Larry King. That debate touched on several topics that are extremely important to me. I thought I’d go back and see how the debates between the money candidates stacked up by comparison.

I couldn’t find a simple list of the questions asked in each debate, so I went to the transcripts and pulled out the questions myself. For the purpose of this comparison, I was more interested in what the candidates were asked, and not what their answers were.

To find the questions, I used transcripts from The Washington Post. They’re linked in the headings below.

First Debate: Domestic Issues

  1. How would you go about creating new jobs?
  2. How would you tackle the deficit problem?
  3. What is your position on Social Security and entitlements?
  4. What is your view on the level of federal regulation of the economy?
  5. What is your position on health care and the Affordable Care Act?
  6. What is the mission of the federal government?
  7. What is the role the federal government in education?
  8. What would you do about partisan gridlock?

Second Debate: “Town Hall”-Style Questions

  1. What should be done about the lack of job prospects for new college graduates?
  2. What about the long-term unemployed?
  3. Do you agree with the energy secretary that it’s not the Energy Department’s job to help lower gas prices?
  4. If you reduce tax credits and deductions to make up for lost revenue due to tax cuts, which would you reduce, and how would that affect the middle class?
  5. What will you do about income inequality between women and men?
  6. Governor Romney, how do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?
  7. President Obama, what have you accomplished to earn my vote again in 2012?
  8. What do you plan to do concerning immigrants without green cards who are currently productive members of society?
  9. Who denied extra security for our embassy in Libya, and why?
  10. Does the buck stop with the Secretary of State in terms of the assassination?
  11. What will you do to limit the availability of assault weapons?
  12. What plans do you have to bring jobs back to the US from overseas?
  13. How do you convince a company to bring manufacturing jobs back here from China, where labor is so much cheaper?
  14. What do you believe is the biggest misconception that the American people have about you as a man and a candidate?

Third Debate: Foreign Policy

  1. Concerning Libya, what happened and why?
  2. Should we change our strategy in Syria?
  3. What is America’s role in the world?
  4. Governor, you say you want to increase military spending. Where would you get the money?
  5. Would you be willing to declare that an attack on Israel is an attack on the United States?
  6. There are reports that Iran and the United States have agreed to talk about Iran’s nuclear program. Is this true, and what would you agree to?
  7. What would you do if Israel decided to attack Iran?
  8. If it’s obvious the Afghans can’t handle their own security by our withdrawal deadline, what will you do?
  9. Is it time for us to stop supporting Pakistan?
  10. What is your position on the use of drones?
  11. What do you believe is the greatest future threat to the national security of this country?
  12. By labeling China a currency manipulator, isn’t there a danger of starting a trade war?

In total, the money candidates got to answer 34 questions. By comparison, here are the 6 questions answered by the third-party candidates. As no transcript seems to be available at present, I watched the video again and got the questions from the closed captioning.

Third-Party Debate

  1. A top-two primary is an election in which party labels appear on the ballot, but parties do not nominate candidates. Instead, the candidates choose their own ballot label. All candidates run in the primary, but only the top two vote-getters appear on the ballot in the November election. This system is currently used in LA, WA, and CA. It is now a ballot measure in AZ, Prop 121, with other states interested in adopting the system. What is your position on the top-two primary system and why?
  2. In what ways does the war on drugs impact Americans, and how could these effects be reduced? Is there a more efficient way to deal with the issue of drug use in America?
  3. Do you think that an annual military budget of nearly $1 trillion is absolutely necessary to keep us safe, and in a broader sense, what do you think should be the role, worldwide, of the United States military?
  4. Some estimates give a college education in the year 2030 a price tag of nearly $400,000. Is college really worth it at that point? If so, how do we provide the opportunity to everyone?
  5. Where do you stand on NDAA section 1021, the ability to detain Americans indefinitely?
  6. If you had the opportunity to write one constitutional amendment with an absolute guarantee it would be approved by Congress and the state legislatures, what would it be?

Obviously, with fewer questions, the topics were much broader, but even so, the third-party candidates covered ground that Obama and Romney didn’t. I certainly would have liked to have heard the money candidates talk about election reform, the war on drugs, and the NDAA. I also would have liked to have heard the third-party candidates delve into topics like health care and social security. (Two of the third-party candidates will weigh in on foreign policy on October 30.)

Ideally, I would like all six candidates in a debate together, with Larry King as moderator, a “cut the mic” button to keep the candidates from interrupting each other (not really a problem in the third-party debate, but apparently the money debates had trouble), and a team of live fact-checkers. Too bad that will never happen.

Here’s some coverage of the third-party debate.

Endorsing not-Romney

Picking a president is, to me, one of the most important things we do as citizens. Though technically we don’t make the final selection–that’s up to the Electoral College–and though there are some states that have been deemed more important while other states don’t even seem to matter, the popular vote can give us the best idea of what the majority wants. It’s a good measure of the mood of the country. It’s a poll with a huge sample size.

And so I take my decision very seriously. Armed with as many facts as I can find, I try to make a choice that I believe would be best for everyone.

This election has been extremely difficult.

I was first eligible to vote for president in the 1996 election between Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, but I had been passionate about presidential politics at least since the 1992 election. Ronald Reagan had been president for almost as long as I’d been alive (I was born in 1978), and I supported his successor, George H.W. Bush. We had a black-and-white faxed Bush poster hanging in our basement (faxing was big back then) that showed a picture of Bush pointing his finger and a purported threat to “kick [Saddam Hussein’s] ass” wherein certain words were replaced by oil company logos. I thought this was hilarious and didn’t quite get the double meaning. At this time I figured we were all on the same side and that America would simply keep being awesome.

I can’t honestly remember if Bush’s loss to Clinton took me by surprise, but I know I irrationally hated Clinton afterward. I was convinced that everything he said was a lie; I believed that I could tell just by looking at him that he was smarmy. I thought of him as a self-serving used car dealer type, eager to sell the country a lemon. This was slightly before Fox News Channel, but I did listen to Rush Limbaugh, and my dad watched a lot of other news programs on TV. And boy did my dad hate Clinton.

As the 1996 election approached, I happily spent my senior year vetting the candidates in the Republican primary. I wanted someone who could get Clinton out. I wanted someone who I felt shared my values, which, at the time, were evangelical Christian. And I wanted someone charismatic who could rally people, because an argument could be made that Ross Perot lost Bush the 1992 election, and I didn’t want to see a third-party candidate “stealing” votes like that again. I ended up choosing Alan Keyes, and talking him up to all my friends. But Keyes was not selected and we were, in my mind, “stuck with” Bob Dole.

I’d loved Reagan and Bush I. They’d seemed presidential to me. Bob Dole just…didn’t. He seemed like he was trying too hard. I entered college in the fall of 1996 shortly before the election. Around that point I discovered and started looking into the libertarian candidate, Harry Browne. After years and years of war, isolationist policies were sounding more and more appealing to me. But ultimately, I was afraid that votes would split between the Republican candidate and a third-party candidate and that Clinton would win. So in 1996, I voted for not-Clinton. I voted for Dole. My very first presidential election, and I was already faced with the “lesser of two evils” choice that has hounded me ever since.

Obviously, Clinton won again. Lots of things happened in my life around that point–I dropped out of school and got a job working retail, I was diagnosed with cancer, I underwent treatment and recovery, and I re-enrolled in school, this time at the University of Kentucky. I’d lived two states away my first year of college, but now I was back living with my parents. Fox News was always on (except when Rush was on) and every day Clinton did something to infuriate my dad. I was convinced that Clinton was unfaithful and his infidelity meant he couldn’t be trusted, so I fully supported his impeachment. I was also convinced that he launched strategic drone strikes against supposed terrorists whenever he wanted to get the heat off his personal life.

Still, this was a wonderful time for me intellectually. I hadn’t picked a major, so I was taking courses that sounded interesting, including several about gender and women’s studies. I became a feminist (though at the time I described myself as “a classical feminist, not a femi-Nazi”). Thankfully, I never got to the point where I believed institutions of higher learning were a waste of time and money, though I did have some ideas about making universities better. One belief that has stuck with me from that time in my life is that the university community, with access to so many people, so many different ideas, so many resources, is one of the greatest environments for learning we can have. You don’t just learn facts there; anyone can learn facts on their own. You learn about people, about life.

The 2000 election was kind of a no-brainer for me, unfortunately; I associated Gore with Clinton and didn’t do any further research into his side. The most I can remember is that I thought he was boring. I did pay a lot of attention to the Republican primary. Alan Keyes was back, but by then I considered him incapable of actually winning. I recall liking Lamar Alexander and Steve Forbes and being interested in Elizabeth Dole, but ultimately I had no complaints with Bush II’s selection. At the time he was a pretty eloquent speaker, and I thought the family name gave him gravitas.

After 9/11 I was terrified that the terrorists were going to strike smaller cities like Lexington, to try and make the point that our government couldn’t protect us. (I didn’t really understand the “point” they were trying to make; the World Trade Center literally meant nothing to me before 9/11.) I remember being very thankful that we had a strong Republican in office to deal with the threat. I also remember wishing it had happened under Clinton, because it would have served as an indictment of his presidency(!).

By 2004 I had married and moved to Augusta. I was somewhat divorced from politics, not having cable at home, so when I happened to be in a hotel in Boston that summer, I watched John Kerry speak for the first time on TV. He was a good speaker, and I really, really liked what he was saying, on an emotional level. But then I stopped, pulled back, and said, “That sounds great, but how would he actually do it?” (Ultimately, I voted for Bush again; I didn’t trust a non-Republican to “stay the course” properly in Iraq.)

Note how many of my political opinions starting out were based on feelings and impressions. I had access to information, but I focused more on how it made me feel personally than on what it meant empirically. This was not fact-based decision-making. That critical thinking moment with John Kerry’s speech was probably the first time I started using my brain properly, which is kind of sad. I was still coming at everything from a Republican viewpoint, but I was no longer willing to simply ignore what the other side said or to accept things at face value.

I had a job in news during the 2008 election, and information was everywhere. I watched and read and absorbed everything I could. As you probably know, I voted Obama, going with “the other party” for the first time. I’d like to say I made this decision completely logically, learning from my history of emotional decision-making, but that would be untrue. Still, I paid a lot more attention to the facts during that election than I ever had before. I was growing more and more aware of the situations of people in this country who are not me, and I wanted a president who was also aware of those situations and who would work to improve everyone’s lot. I remembered John McCain from previous elections, and I’d liked him previously, but his rhetoric this time around didn’t mesh with my vision of a progressive country. I was also rather flummoxed by Sarah Palin, who seemed like a nice enough person but clearly wasn’t qualified for her role. When a woman becomes president or vice president, I want it to be because she deserves it, not out of tokenism. While I did generally want to finally have a non-white president, I would never have voted for Obama based on the color of his skin. He earned the presidency through the power of his conviction and insight. A weaker candidate never could have done it. Obama’s race wasn’t a leg up; it was a hurdle.

Well, now it’s time for another presidential election. (As you know, since it’s been going on for two years.) I would say that this is the election for which I have the most information. I also have a clear vision of the priorities I want for our government.

And for the past several months, I have been in turmoil over who to vote for.

Economically, I’m happy with Obama. I’d like to see the tax cuts implemented by Bush and renewed by him expire–hell, I’d really like to see broad tax reform–but in terms of doing what he can to guide the country out of the financial crisis, I agree with the economists I’ve read that Obama has done a pretty decent job. A different president might undo all the good that has already been done, which is a scary thought. Or they might continue it and add something better. Ultimately, we don’t know what will happen, and the only person’s past performance we can even remotely rely on as a gauge is Obama’s.

On social issues, I’m okay with Obama. He says all the right things. He seems to get it. Based on his performance so far, I think we can trust him at least not to upset the status quo. And his Affordable Healthcare Act certainly helped a lot of people, especially women. Romney, on the other hand, has indicated that his public policy will reflect the values of a certain segment of the population and not the needs of the population as a whole. How much of that should we take seriously? How much of it is just rhetoric to get himself elected, to please his donors and voting base? Social issues are how candidates get people “riled up”; it’s considered a “safe” way to campaign. A Facebook commenter asked recently: how many Republican candidates have campaigned on ending abortion, only to do absolutely nothing about it once elected?

I would have found this “rhetoric has no teeth” argument more compelling before the Tea Party took control of much of the country and started passing anti-abortion legislation on the state level. I would say that at this point, social issues are back in play, and we need to be careful what we do about them. We can’t just trust candidates to be all talk.

So far, Obama seems to be a natural choice for me. The economy and social issues are huge, and he seems to be getting those things right. But other things are important too–things like due process and privacy. Our governmental post-9/11 paranoia has not abated under Obama; if anything, it’s flourished. Here’s a post I wrote back in April detailing all the rights we’ve lost or are in danger of losing if we don’t start paying attention.

This is enormous, people. It changes how our country fundamentally works. It codifies things we always worried or joked that the government was doing secretly and illegally. Maybe they were, but now there’s no recourse for citizens if we find out about it…because now it’s legal.

We are essentially no longer innocent until proven guilty. We can be held “on suspicion” for as long as the government wants. Obama has also used drone strikes to execute terror suspects without trial, including a US citizen.

I would hope that Obama isn’t making some sort of power grab here, and that he’s just naively acting in ways he thinks will improve national security at minimum cost. But there’s no way to know. All I do know is that a country that treats all of its citizens like criminals, spying on them and holding them without trial and killing them with drone strikes abroad, is not a “free country”.

Journalists have heard of these things, and some have spoken out against it, but others are either afraid of not getting invited to the fancy parties anymore or afraid of being spirited away in the night by the military. Whatever the reason, we’re not hearing about this anywhere. It’s bad enough that people who point it out sound like conspiracy theorist kooks, even though the legislation is readily available for anyone to read. The democratic process can’t work if people aren’t in possession of the facts…and people aren’t in possession of the facts. (A lot of people barely have time to put food on the table, let alone research all this stuff.)

Would Romney fix these problems? I don’t know enough about him to say for sure, but if he’s following a Republican hard line, I imagine he’ll just keep walking this same path. He certainly hasn’t called for anything like a repeal of the PATRIOT Act.

There are third-party candidates who have, though. The Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, is one of them. Some of my friends who supported Ron Paul in the primaries have switched their allegiance to this guy. I was hoping Ron Paul would win the Republican nomination, because even though I didn’t agree with a lot of what he said, I liked where he stood on personal freedom and privacy, and I figured a choice between him and Obama would be more of a toss-up than between Obama and any of the other candidates, who were all far too evangelical for my taste. As I liked some of what Paul said, I like some of what Johnson says, but I don’t really consider myself a libertarian anymore. I think the world is too interconnected for us to just stay out of things. (I do, however, think war should be dead last on our list of options.) I’m also concerned that Johnson would go the austerity route too soon, while the economy is still trying to recover.

Another third-party candidate calling for the repeal of PATRIOT is Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. I started looking into her after an online questionnaire told me my opinions matched best with hers. The Green New Deal is extremely interesting and I am in favor of a lot of it, including election reform, overturning Citizens United, making voting easier and more secure, making Election Day a national holiday, breaking up big banks, taxing the bonuses of bailed-out bankers at 90% (love that!), restoring Glass-Steagall, ending financial bailouts, investing in transportation, power/water, local food, and education infrastructures, and investing in green industries. I’m interested in the other ideas as well, but this is a far-left party and as such the entire platform (except, I suppose, the 50% military cut) depends on big government, which would be funded via tax reform. I’d like to see if this would work, but I’m not convinced enough of the country would get behind such a plan for Stein to have a chance of winning. Even if she did get elected, she certainly wouldn’t have much in the way of Congressional support, so it’s unclear how many of her goals she would actually be able to achieve.

Still, at this point, I like her the best. So now my problem is, do I vote for the candidate I actually want, or do I vote for the candidate most likely to defeat the candidate I absolutely don’t want? Where is my vote most effective? Is my vote effective at all? Should I try to be strategic, or should I be straightforward?

Going back to my “presidential election as a poll” idea, I should be straightforward. I shouldn’t worry about my vote protecting us from a Romney presidency; I should simply vote for the candidate I actually support. I shouldn’t worry that my candidate doesn’t have a chance of winning; instead, I should worry about making sure the “poll” provides an accurate picture. If I voted for Obama, it wouldn’t be because I wholeheartedly support him, after all.

What would it mean, though, if Dr. Stein got a lot of votes, but didn’t win? Would we simply call it the Perot Effect? Would it renew our fear of voting for third-party candidates?

Are we ever going to have a system that lets us vote for the candidates we like without having to worry about this?

The ERA

In the past few months as I’ve gotten deeper and deeper into women’s rights issues, I’ve seen many calls for the ERA to finally be adopted. The Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution, would guarantee women the same rights as men. According to the official website, it was first proposed in 1923. It finally passed out of Congress in 1972, but since then it hasn’t been ratified by enough states to become law.

To be completely honest, my first reaction to this particular issue was to scoff. Why, I thought, should we need to specifically call ourselves out in the Constitution? That everyone has equal rights should be a matter of course. We shouldn’t need to codify it.

To everyone shaking your heads, let me explain something. I came of age in the 1990s, a time I look back on now as somewhat magical. Women’s rights were everywhere. People were having important discussions about equality on sitcoms. Popular music confronted social issues in thoughtful, powerful ways. And of course there was Lilith Fair. I went through high school and college feeling that women were powerful and could do anything, and those beliefs were bolstered by my surrounding culture. There were still problems, I knew, but they would be swept away in due course. I felt that humanity was on an inexorable upward climb.

It’s worth noting that at the time, I was a staunch Republican who got regular doses of Rush Limbaugh at home, and I was eager to point out to anyone who would listen that I was no “femi-Nazi”, but a “classical feminist”. It wasn’t embarrassing to be a feminist. It was normal. The issue wasn’t over whether or not to support women’s rights, but how to go about it.

With this background, you might see where I would get a little complacent. Perhaps that was the case for many feminists; I’m not sure. But something happened, because that golden age of feminism is no more.

After 9/11, the inclusiveness of the 1990s was shattered. We stopped being welcoming. We became suspicious of anything new, anyone who didn’t fit the “norm”. “Traditional values” became more and more important; they were comfortable, easy, a safety net. Never mind that these traditions are pretty new in terms of human history; they’re what we know and what our parents knew, so they must be for the best.

As progressiveness slowed, enmity grew between the traditional majority and minorities who had finally begun coming into their own.

I noticed the way fear had replaced openness in our society, but I thought it would pass. I didn’t think I really needed to do anything.

When a friend of mine in Mississippi started lobbying on Facebook against Initiative 26 last year, I didn’t think it was a big deal. Or at least, I didn’t think it would ever apply to me. I thought, here’s some lawmaker doing something silly in a different state. It’ll never pass. But as I watched, she continued to lobby, and it slowly grew apparent that it wasn’t going away. I think at some point I started reposting a few of her links, and I was gratified when ultimately the bill failed. I figured it was over.

Then Georgia put forth its “fetal pain” bill earlier this year.

Now it affected me. (I could empathize with those it would directly affect; I’m infertile. But more importantly, I could actually make a difference, as a resident of Georgia.) For the first time, I wrote about women’s rights on my blog. A couple days later, I wrote more. I posted links on Facebook. And I wrote the governor.

The bill passed.

After that I became more and more aware of similar bills being put forth across the country–the “personhood” movement. At a time when the recovering economy should have been everyone’s top priority, lawmakers were instead slowly chipping away at Roe vs. Wade. And then the attacks on contraception began–contraception, the most obvious way to avoid abortion entirely.

Whenever I would discuss my growing unease, someone would always tell me that these issues were a “distraction”.

Maybe they are a distraction, but if so, I’m not the one doing the distracting. The people actually making these laws are. And, worse, with people not allowing themselves to be “distracted”, these things are passing.

If this movement is indeed a “distraction”, my guess is that the people putting forth these laws are trying to distract us from the fact that they have no idea how to create jobs, or from the fact that the economy is recovering bit by bit. While they’re at it, they’re appealing to a radical base that longs for the “good old days”, and it’s working.

Whatever the reason, proponents of these laws are pushing thought out of government while pulling private matters of family and health into it. They’re forgetting that we know the cost of prohibition.

As a woman, I can’t sit back and view all of this as “politics as usual”. Not with the very culture changing around me. Not with more and more men and women speaking out against human rights. Not with the sudden rise of vitriol and suspicion toward rape victims. Not with the generally emerging sense that it’s okay for people who are not doctors to make medical decisions for other people, with no exceptions. Not with this apparent shift from making laws based on logic and science to making them based on unsupported beliefs.

We are no longer a country that doesn’t need an Equal Rights Amendment–if we ever truly were. Instead, we are on a road of hatred, marginalization, and silencing, on which people feel compelled to comment that when women are really raped, they can’t get pregnant, or that women should never have been given the right to vote.

The ERA would not solve the problems we’re currently facing, but it would be an important first step toward equality in the home, workplace, and political sphere. It would give us the ability to protect our rights in ways beyond protesting, lobbying, and writing letters. As the political tides shift, we need that protection. We need something as a buffer against anti-woman trends that could otherwise render us powerless.

One way to get the ERA passed is to find three more states to ratify it. Georgia is one possibility; there are fourteen others. Attempts are also continually made to get the ERA back through Congress. A survey from 2001 indicates that, at least at that time, the people were behind the idea of codifying equal rights.

To help immediately, you can sign this petition. As of now, there doesn’t seem to be a way to donate to the cause online. You can find various t-shirts and stickers here and there, but it’s unclear if the profits would help the cause.

In the long term, you can support legislators who support the ERA, through voting and campaign donations. You can call or write your lawmakers and ask them to support it. And you can talk about this issue with your friends and family.

The past year has proven to me that our rights are not inalienable. Not until we put them into the Constitution.

The American Airlines t-shirt debate

Many are upset that a woman called O. was publicly berated and detained by American Airlines staff for wearing a t-shirt the staff members found offensive, causing her to miss a connecting flight and end up late to pick her daughter up. While I can kind of see where they’re coming from, I am not really all that angry about it.

Call me a prude, but I don’t want to see the f-word on somebody’s shirt while I’m using a mode of transportation frequented by people, adults and children, from all over the world. I don’t particularly want to see the other things listed as examples in the article, either:

I have been on flights with men wearing tatoos [sic] that demean women, and t-shirts that advocate violence against women, that demean women, that treat Obama with racist derision… What someone wears on their body is their business. Whether or not you would wear that t-shirt is not the point. It is not for American Airlines to decide what is politically okay or not.

Actually, as American Airlines is a private company selling a service, they can pretty much do whatever they want, so long as they don’t violate FAA regulations. People are free to not use AA if they disagree with their policies…one of which, as noted here, is that passengers can be ejected at any time for the following reason:

Are clothed in a manner that would cause discomfort or offense to other passengers

Now, I can’t guarantee that list item wasn’t added in the aftermath of this particular incident, but even if it was, so what? It’s the company’s prerogative. And it’s your prerogative to decide whether or not you think that’s wrong, and whether or not to use the company’s service.

I don’t think the employees handled the issue well. They could have pulled the lady aside and quietly asked her to turn the t-shirt inside out or cover it with the shawl, as suggested in the article. It certainly wasn’t necessary to cause her to miss her flight–assuming she cooperated with their request.

And there’s the rub. We only have her side. We don’t know that she was simply victimized here, or if she became argumentative. We don’t know if the captain mentioned AA’s policy to her during that conversation, or said anything else. (The article also draws some conclusions about the event that don’t seem to be represented in O.’s writeup.) This sort of ambiguity is why I hesitate to make snap judgments about things like this…especially when they don’t really matter so much. No one was hurt or killed here.

My main takeaway is this: if her shirt had said, “If I wanted the government in my womb, I’d have sex with a senator!” it wouldn’t have bothered me. If that language had bothered AA, I would be troubled. I think the inclusion of the profanity was what made it offensive, not the political message. It’s possible I’m wrong, but due to the inclusion of profanity, it’s impossible to actually know.

The purpose of government

Legislation proposed and even passed on the federal and state level in the past several years has made it unclear whether or not the people we’ve chosen to represent us in government actually know what it means to govern in a democratic republic.

Since 9/11, individual US citizens have seen their rights slowly stripped away in the name of “fighting terrorism”, “freedom”, “democracy”, “safety”, and “the greater good”. The assault on liberty has only intensified in the past few years, with the added supposed justifications of “stopping piracy”, “taking care of the economy”, and “protecting children”.

The first wave:

  • USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 (Wikipedia, EFF, Center for National Security Studies, full text from the Library of Congress)
    This was a huge increase in governmental powers of intelligence-gathering, financial regulation, and the detaining and deportation of immigrants. It also redefined terrorism to include domestic terrorism, laying the groundwork for the indefinite detention rider to the NDAA (see below). The PATRIOT Act was set to expire a few times, but has always been extended–or provisions that did expire were reborn under other laws.
  • Homeland Security Act of 2002 (Wikipedia, PBS, full text at DHS)
    This law radically restructured the US government, further threatening individual privacy and paradoxically making gathered information less safe while increasing government secrecy. Here is some analysis from the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. (Note that the TIA portion of HSA was, fortunately, removed.)
  • Military Commissions Act of 2006 (Wikipedia, Center for Constitutional Rights)
    Allows the US to detain “alien unlawful enemy combatants” indefinitely without trial, to try them in military courts, and to employ torture. This was basically our government’s way of saying they were unhappy with having to adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Apparently they liked this power so much they wanted to extend it to US citizens as well; see the NDAA below.
  • Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007 (Wikipedia; did not become law)
    This law would have criminalized such behaviors as sharing one’s opinion on the internet. Think such a thing would never pass? Check out the NDAA and CISPA, below.

The more recent wave:

We have essentially empowered our government to spy on us, harass us, arrest us and detain us indefinitely without trial…and to thank us, they keep chipping away more and more freedoms. How many of us even know this is happening? How many of us who do know are afraid to say anything, for fear of being targeted by the government?

Do these laws make you feel more secure?

Any law that allows the government to do something to a citizen based on the suspicion that that citizen is engaging in certain activity is a law that can be abused. Have a political enemy? “Suspect” her of terrorism, and get her locked up by the military. Don’t like a certain blogger’s message? “Suspect” him of cybercrime, and enjoy knowing the intelligence community is laying his private life bare.

Why do we have a government, again? Wasn’t it something about taking care of citizens? Let’s see. Here’s part of the preamble to the Bill of Rights, which basically says governmental powers should be limited to make sure people can trust the government:

THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.

And from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold 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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

It’s hard to look at what our government has done since 9/11 and argue that it has not been destructive to liberty.

What should we do? We need people in our government who truly represent people, not drug companies or entertainment empires or banks or monopolies or other huge businesses. We need legislators who are knowledgeable, who don’t spend all their time fundraising. I outlined some campaign reform ideas in a previous post; I truly think if we could do something like that, we’d be in a much better place than we are now.

Until then, we have to fight every battle as best we can. And that definitely means fighting CISPA right now. Contact your senators and contact the White House; let them know that this further incursion into civil rights and privacy cannot pass.

It also means electing people who understand larger issues, who aren’t simply motivated by the desire for a career in Washington. It’s probably going to be hard to find these people, but we have to try.

The government should not prop up failing business models

One thing that really stuck out to me during the SOPA/PIPA debate, and is now resurfacing in my mind with CISPA, is the sheer nerve of the entertainment industry, to essentially ask the government to be volunteer copyright enforcers on the taxpayers’ dime.

Digital piracy is not an indicator of masses of criminals who delight in stealing copyrighted works. It’s an indicator that people want content, and they have no easy, legal way to get it.

The makers of television programs who do not offer any way for people to purchase the programs online or watch them stream with ads are essentially saying they don’t want people to watch their content. I get that what they think they’re saying is people should watch it on TV when it airs, or maybe on their DVR…but many people have moved away from these costly entertainment streams in favor of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and iTunes, and companies need to catch up. And even if a person does typically watch a show live on TV, what if she misses an episode? Most shows build on the happenings of previous episodes these days, so just skipping one would be jarring. You’ve got to give people a way to catch up to the story.

But instead of seeing the profit potential in online streaming and digital downloads, many big content creators are just opting out, or only providing a limited offering. They’re ignoring a whole new revenue stream and then wondering why profits aren’t quite as fantastic as they used to be.

The decision-makers are so blind to their own failing business model that they’re grasping at the piracy straw and holding it out to the government in desperate entreaty. “I don’t want to let people consume my content legally. Just arrest and prosecute a bunch of people for me so I can make up some profit!”

Please note that I am not arguing that piracy is in any way right or good. I am, however, arguing that it is an understandable behavior under these conditions. Humans who want things tend to get them, regardless of the risks involved. (Illegal drugs are a good example of this.) If companies want to curb piracy, they should change their approach.

Rather than treating all potential customers like criminals, companies should make it so easy and convenient to get their content that it would be absurd to pirate it.

We are already on a slippery slope of creative control. Copyrights have been extended to a ridiculous degree, and fewer and fewer modern works are entering public domain. The original notion of copyright, to protect a person’s creation during his or her life, has become lost in corporate greed. And what people seem to be missing is that draconian copyright laws are nothing more than government handouts in the form of law enforcement muscle and court time.

Government is there to ensure opportunity for all, not to blindly throw money at problems. If the government gets involved in a company’s profits at all, it should be only in a time of desperate need. Even then, I disapprove of just giving them money or law enforcement assistance. They should come in with a business plan.

Entertainment companies should not expect huge profits in a bad economy. They should create strategies for their own survival. If and only if they still need help, and if and only if their loss would significantly impact society, government could help. But this should not be entered into lightly. Congress should not make the decision based on numbers the media company brings in themselves, for example. There should always be independent confirmation.

And when these companies ask for help, it should be publicly…not through the legislators whose campaigns they’ve funded.

Ultimately, it should not be the government’s job to funnel money into big companies. Bailouts that get paid back are one thing, but copyright enforcement would occur at the cost of the government–lost time and money. That’s not sustainable, and ultimately it’s not going to fix the entertainment industry’s lack of vision.

Salvaging our elections process

It has long disturbed me that the people we “elect” to national office often aren’t the best qualified or most representative of the will of the people they represent, but instead seemingly the ones who manage to get their names and faces out in front of people the longest. This implies that our politicians spend the majority of their time chasing and then spending money…not exactly the scions of fiscal responsibility we want in control of our budget.

A friend suggested to me that in the UK, they cap campaign spending and have a limited time set for campaigning, and that these would be excellent rules to implement here. I don’t know what the UK system is exactly, but I have my own thoughts on how this would work out. I also came up with a third condition that I think would maximize effectiveness.

  1. Make all campaigns, and candidates, transparent

    The first step is to ensure that the public has free and easy access to the same information about all candidates. This should include things like a campaign’s budget, and which companies or lobby groups have donated to the campaign. (Private citizens’ donations would remain private, unless they passed a certain percentage of the campaign funding cap.)

    This should also include things like a candidate’s resume–past offices and jobs held, voting history in context. This should not include things like a candidate’s “stance on the issues”, as these are not reliable measures and are often nothing more than editorializing or, at worst, pandering. Nor should this include any analysis. The raw data should be presented in ways that makes it easy for people of various learning types to understand, but the greatest efforts should be made to keep that data pure and complete. People should be able to use that data to make their own decisions.

    Designing this data presentation interface would be the greatest user experience project in the history of America. Determining what data to include and maintaining that data would be some of the most important work in this country, as it would literally allow democracy to function.

    Once the interface was designed, various vendors could work with the API to allow users to interact with the data in public libraries and in their own homes. The Xbox Kinect, for example, could help kinetic learners. Obviously, this interface would also need to take accessibility questions into account.

    This data would need to be protected just as the internet itself is protected.

    The media would have access to the data just as average citizens would, and they would be perfectly within their First Amendment rights to provide their own analysis of it, and add their own original reporting. However, they should be required to make it clear where the data ends and their own analysis and reporting begins.

  2. Put a cap on campaign funding

    Rather than simply limiting what candidates can spend, I would limit how much money a candidate can raise for an election at all. Currently, some donations aren’t used for a specific election, but are saved for a later time. I would require that all funds raised during the election period be limited to a certain amount and then spent on that election. Any money left over would then be split equally among those who had donated, at the expense of the campaign fund. An outside accountant would oversee this process. There would be no donating to a politician’s campaign in the middle of the year, only during election time.

    The purpose here is not to further distance candidates from the concept of long-term financial planning, but to make it easier for candidates who were not born into wealth or prestige to have a shot at getting elected. Ideally, campaign planning would become so dissimilar to the national budget (and so compartmentalized and short-term by comparison) that it would not interfere with an elected public servant’s understanding or take his or her attention away from the true purpose of office.

    While this would not completely level the candidate playing field, it would eliminate the gross advantage certain candidates enjoy solely due to their personal wealth. Rich candidates could still run, of course, but they would be limited to using the same amount of money as other candidates. Instead of having the enormous advantage of being a major candidate through no personal merit, they’d simply have the lesser advantage of not having to spend time seeking donations.

    As all campaigns would be transparent, people would know when a candidate was reaching his or her funding cap, and therefore they could stop donating in time for the candidate not to have to deal with refunding a lot of money.

  3. Limit campaign activities to a defined campaign period

    Currently, our elected officials are campaigning year-round. They’re thinking about re-election at all times, seeking out more and more campaign money, concentrating more on keeping their jobs than on taking care of their work. Capping campaign funding solves half of that problem. The other half would be solved by prohibiting any election activity outside of a defined election time.

    Our presidential election process is the best example of how long and exhausting an election process can get. By the time voters head to the polls (or not), they’re already tired of the election. They may have tuned it all out. They may simply vote along party lines. They may be frustrated over the political grandstanding and wondering where, exactly, the candidates really stand.

    Setting a short, defined period for campaigning, and prohibiting candidates from participating in any campaign-related activities outside of that period–fundraising, answering interview questions about elections, sending out campaign fliers and such–would eliminate campaign fatigue and also force candidates to get down to the meat of matters rather than switching up their “stances” based on opinion polls. Put some teeth in this one: any candidate found to be engaged in any campaign activity outside of the campaign period should be ineligible to run in the next election.

    This doesn’t mean that candidates wouldn’t be able to discuss issues. It’s imperative that they be able to do that. But they should do so in a way that makes it obvious their goal is to help the country, not their own agendas. This would probably be the hardest thing to enforce, so I would recommend against trying. (These are politicians, after all.) Only overt campaign activities would result in an election ban.

    There should also be some sort of punishment for any media organization that tries to trap a candidate into answering a question that would make him or her ineligible. Maybe a severe fine.

    I don’t support the idea of a state-run media at all. While I believe there is some severe corruption in the news media right now, I don’t think the solution would be for the government to strictly regulate the media. There has to be room for the media to operate for its true and just purpose: journalism. At the same time, though, there are certain media behaviors, such as favoring one candidate over another candidate, or ignoring certain candidates completely, that are too troublesome to ignore. I am hoping that the steps I’m outlining here to change the election process would have the effect of changing how the media approaches elections. I’m not prepared at this time to forbid the media from discussing an election outside the defined election period. That seems way too Big Brother-y. I would hope, rather, that once citizens knew they could get all the information they needed during the election period, they wouldn’t really want the media to be constantly projecting who was going to run and who might be the winner from those who might be running…and they’d say so. And then, finally, a presidential election might not last for three years.

  4. Require all candidates to take a governance test

    Give all candidates a test at the same time, at the beginning of the election period, once all candidates had announced for a position. The first part of the test would be multiple choice, a mix of questions about American history, American government, economics, world history and politics, and basic math. The second part would require candidates to answer an essay question about a current national issue. This would not be a “what is your stance” question, but a “what specific steps would you take in this specific scenario” question.

    Arrangements would be made for candidates to take the test in a way that matches their learning styles. An aural learner could have a proctor read the test to them, for example. The test would be made as accessible as possible to all candidates.

    Candidates would not be required to pass this test to run for office. However, the tests would all be publicly available pieces of a candidate’s data, easy for citizens to retrieve and evaluate. The media would of course also have access and be able to pick each candidate’s answers apart.

    This should give the candidates plenty of impetus to spend the time outside the campaign period making sure they have actual knowledge that will assist them in governance.

  5. Eliminate PACs and Super PACs

    I figured this went without saying, but then I figured I’d better say it anyway. There would be no point in limiting a candidate’s campaigning without doing this.

I foresee many things changing, should all these conditions be met. With elected officials no longer spending the bulk of their time on campaigning, actual governing should improve. The thought of this would appeal to those members of Congress who actually do want to govern properly, and just don’t have the time. I think there would be enough support for this kind of reform even within government that it could go through. The hardest part would be creating the data interface, since nothing like this has ever been done before.

Once this system was in place, we would start to see a lot of new faces in politics, and I think the constant refresh would do a world of good. We would also see more of a focus on actually running the country, and less on the power and prestige of being a long-term member of Congress. Maybe the newer, more civic-minded members would think about how members of Congress are treated differently by the law than regular citizens are, and maybe they would start to change that.

Equal rights for women

In my previous post, I talked about Georgia HR 954, a bill that would move the cutoff point for abortions to 20 weeks and limit the circumstances under which which abortions can be performed in the state. I addressed some specific problems with the language of that bill in the post.

Now I’d like to talk a bit more about why broadly-written legislation like this is problematic, and why this debate is not so simple as “kill children” vs. “don’t kill children”.

Soraya Chemaly of the Huffington Post has compiled an excellent roundup of information on this topic, entitled 3 Videos Everyone Who Assumes Women Are Free Should See.

The first video tells the stories of women who were criminalized for wanting to have their babies on their own terms. In other words, their stories aren’t about abortion at all–they’re about when and how the women and their partners wanted to bring their children into the world. Why were hospitals interfering in these decisions? Because the state governments had passed “personhood” laws for zygotes, giving doctors the right to supersede mothers. In one instance, law enforcement came to a woman’s home, dragged her to the hospital, and forced her to have a C-section. In America.

Here’s a direct link to that video.

As Chemaly points out, the “personhood” idea behind these laws is the same thing as the Personhood Pledge most of the Republican candidates for president signed. What does this mean? That these men have promised to, if elected, work to grant “personhood” to life inside the womb at fertilization. So, for example, if a woman has a miscarriage, she could be charged with feticide.

What this sort of law ignores is that women are not incubators. Here’s how Chemaly puts it:

I’m not keen on pitting a woman’s rights against those of her fetus. Although useful to understand certain issues, it sets up a false and misleading dichotomy. Gestation, during which a woman chooses to share her body in complex, fully integrated ways, is the exact opposite of separation. Women are not separate from their fetuses. A key strategy of this movement is to pretend that they are and to enshrine that idea in dangerous laws. Women are not production facilities or vessels or any number of other updated variations of spermist theory homunculous container. But, because of the constructs being established by this movement on “behalf” of zygotes, a hospital can waive your right to life, in violation of your or your family’s instructions, to save your fetus.

I think there is an interesting social aspect to consider here. A lot of the female advocates of “personhood” for zygotes and/or stiffer abortion legislation are mothers. Mothers are exceedingly familiar with self-sacrifice. It comes naturally to them. They give up much and more for the good of their children. Some women do so happily, others reluctantly, but all eventually become some sort of martyr, some sort of hero. To these women, their own lives don’t matter. To these women, an abortion would be a failure, regardless of circumstance.

I am not a mother myself, and I probably never will be due to infertility…but these feelings are not foreign to me. I held them throughout my young adult life as a fervent anti-abortionist. I knew–knew–that I would give up my life for my child, without hesitation. I was convinced that my theoretical child deserved to live more than I did, and that if there was ever a time when a pregnancy threatened my health, I would choose the baby over myself. Even if the baby was in danger and I was not, I’d choose it over myself. If I was ever raped, I fervently believed that I would raise that child and make something good out of something terrible. If I knew that my child would be born with severe physical or mental disabilities, I would have it and love it, because it would be my baby, and the difficulty would make me stronger. Knowing ahead of time would just give me time to prepare.

Abortion, for me, was simply not an option, and I didn’t see how any woman could feel differently.

This is where the problem begins. When you believe everyone should think the same way you do, and you start supporting legislation that forces them to follow your way of living.

Time has passed, and my opinion has shifted. I am no longer certain what my decisions would be in the situations above. I spent much of my young life hating myself, believing I wasn’t worth anything, and those feelings informed my decisions. Now I have come to see at least a little of my own worth, and I am not so eager to sacrifice myself.

I am not saying that I would not do it. Technically, we all give things up every day just to maintain the status quo. Compromise is the cornerstone of any relationship, and we all have at least one person we must compromise with. I am not just doing what I want, living as if I don’t affect the world; instead, I am seeing my value and place in it, and thinking more broadly than I was before.

And because my opinion has shifted, I can now see that there are times when an abortion might be the right decision for a family. It will always be a painful decision. But now I see that it is one to be made by the people involved: the mother, the father, the doctor. Not by blanket legislation that ends up taking reproduction decisions out of the home and handing them to the state.

I am not in favor of late-term abortions; once a fetus is to the point that it could survive outside the womb, it is unconscionable to terminate its life. I am interested in the fetal pain issue and will continue researching the studies that have been done in that vein; someone on Facebook sent me some references to look into. Ultimately, if there is going to be an abortion, I think it should happen as early as possible.

But there may come a point when it’s obvious to everyone involved that something needs to be done, and broad, restrictive legislation only causes further pain in those instances.

Georgia HB 954 and big government

People are all of a sudden starting to hear about Georgia State Rep. Terry England’s comparing of women to livestock, and using his statement to rally people against HB 954, the “fetal pain” bill. This is old news. Rep. England made his comments last month; here’s coverage from the Huffington Post.

In the ensuing weeks, the bill has been rewritten, and there are now allowances for the health of the mother, thus rendering the current rallying cry inaccurate and possibly damaging. The real issue with this bill is not the fact that one man said something ludicrous. It is that this legislation would give the Georgia government control over the relationship between doctor and patient, leaving the doctor essentially impotent and the patient with no input into her medical care whatsoever.

The text of the bill can be found here.

Section 1 is the justification for the bill. Its main claim is that there is “substantial evidence” that fetuses feel pain at 20 weeks. I would say this is the argument on which the entire bill depends. However, I am having trouble finding this “substantial evidence”.

This is the most recent study I can find concerning fetal pain. Unfortunately, it’s from 2005. (I do find the summary interesting in respect to the claims made in HB 954’s Section 1.) This particular study’s results indicate that fetuses aren’t capable of feeling pain until the third trimester.

If someone has a medical journal link (not an opinion piece, blog, online petition, or even a “news” story, unless it has references) with more updated information, I’d be glad to see it.

From the get-go, the bill begs the question–a logical fallacy. Section 2 is just as problematic. Note how all the provisions allowing physicians to do their jobs have been stricken. The decision is not in the hands of patients and the medical professionals who actually know what they’re doing; lawmakers are instead giving them a blanket rulebook to follow.

Section 2 also contains the new language that will supposedly protect women from carrying dead fetuses or from endangering their own lives and/or health. However, check out this bit:

No such condition [permitting an abortion] shall be deemed to exist if it is based on a diagnosis or claim of a mental or emotional condition of the pregnant woman or that the pregnant woman will purposefully engage in conduct which she intends to result in her death or in substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function

Mental health is not considered a part of “real” health under Georgia law, apparently.

Then there’s this:

In any case described in subparagraph (A) or (B) of paragraph (1) of this subsection, the physician shall terminate the pregnancy in the manner which, in reasonable medical judgment, provides the best opportunity for the unborn child to survive unless, in reasonable medical judgment, termination of the pregnancy in that manner would pose a greater risk either of the death of the pregnant woman or of the substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman than would another available method. No such greater risk shall be deemed to exist if it is based on a diagnosis or claim of a mental or emotional condition of the pregnant woman or that the pregnant woman will purposefully engage in conduct which she intends to result in her death or in substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function. If the [“product of the abortion” is struck here and replaced with “child”] is capable of [the phrase “meaningful or” is struck here] sustained life, medical aid then available must be rendered.

The bill does not go into who would then pay for the continued medical needs of the fetus, which at this point obviously could not survive outside a medical facility…nor who would take the child in if he or she somehow managed to live through this ordeal. Note the striking of the word “meaningful” in the text. We all know how hard it is for premature babies–this would be so much worse. Who can imagine what physical and mental damage the child might suffer? And then to not even have parents who want him/her? To become a ward of the state? Do you really think such a life would be “meaningful”? No wonder the word was stricken.

A huge issue with this sort of legislation is that it completely ignores the impact on the rest of society and the rest of life after the event it’s trying to prevent. “Save the babies” sounds like a wonderful cause…until you start to wonder, save them for what, exactly?

Please note, I am, in general, opposed to abortion. I think that life is a wonderful and amazing thing. Longtime readers know how I’ve struggled with my infertility, how I’ve always wanted to have children. The idea of abortion for convenience’s sake makes me sick. But that’s what contraception is for, so you don’t get into that situation in the first place. And of the very few people I have heard of who’ve actually had an abortion, none of them have said the choice was “easy” or “convenient”.

I believe there are times when a woman can and should get an abortion, and that should be between her, her partner, and her physician. I think places like Planned Parenthood, which help educate women on birth control, health, and reproductive issues, are important not because they push an “abortion agenda” (they don’t) but because they help women to take ownership of their own lives, to make choices that are good for them, their families, and their communities. And because that assistance is optional.

The issue with HB 954, the real truth behind the “pro-choice”/”pro-life” debate, is not abortion at all. It’s about the government making choices for private citizens. I don’t want the government telling me I can’t get birth control or an abortion any more than I want them telling me I can’t have weight loss surgery or a heart transplant. It’s none of their business. And once they start dipping their toes into that water, it’s not long until they’re all-in. Have you heard about the banning of religious garments in European schools, how everyone thought it was a great idea until suddenly people couldn’t wear cross necklaces anymore? Not so great when it affects you. And men, this sort of legislation will get around to something that affects you eventually. [Edit: Come to think of it, Florida’s Stand Your Ground law affects everyone in that state, doesn’t it?]

HB 954 has not yet been signed into law by Gov. Deal. There are a couple of petitions against it on Change.org, but I don’t know how effective those actually are. If you feel as I do, I’d recommend writing or calling Deal yourself.

Gintama and the denial of one’s own atrocities

I recently started watching Gintama on Crunchyroll. It’s a very funny show about a guy named Gintoki who lives by his own odd code of honor while performing odd jobs to get by. He seems lazy and unreliable, but he’s always true to himself and his friends. The show is filled with references to other anime like Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, Prince of Tennis, and probably many more I don’t recognize. Overall I have really been enjoying it.

However, as the story continues further into the overarching premise, I’m more and more aware of the obvious allegory. While at first I simply thought of it as an interesting intellectual exercise, it’s become more troubling to me in light of recent events.

In a nutshell, the plot of Gintama is this: in the Edo period, when Japan was known as the nation of samurai and Tokyo was still called Edo, aliens came to Earth and subjugated the people. The opening narration mentions that the aliens forced Japan to “open their country” and also that they cowed the government through a show of superior force (they fired a huge beam weapon and at least partially destroyed a castle). Subsequently a “no sword” law was enforced, and all the former samurai were forced to find other ways to support themselves, often unsuccessfully. Now the aliens live among the people of Edo, blatantly oppressing them, hiding behind diplomatic immunity.

The parallels with Japanese history are pretty obvious, if you omit certain inconvenient facts. The “opening” of the country recalls Commodore Perry’s black ships, which frightened Japan into agreeing to trade freely with other nations for the first time. The show of force and sword ban bring to mind Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the subsequent signing of the US-mandated constitution forbidding Japan to engage in warlike activities, including the formation of an army. And the aliens’ oppression of the Edo people calls to mind the Occupation.

What there aren’t parallels for, at least not yet, are the atrocities Japan itself committed in its history. The closest thing are the wars the Edo people fought for over ten years trying to cast the aliens out…but in the context of Gintama, this war is honorable, as the warriors are the victims, not the aggressors. The Anti-Foreigner group that Gin’s war buddy Katsura runs, which depending on your perspective can be called a terrorist group or a group of freedom fighters, seems like something more out of modern Middle Eastern history than Japan’s.

Through all of this, Edo is painted as the victim. And yet the similarities to Japan’s history are too striking to be coincidence.

At first, I thought there wasn’t really much harm in this. It’s an anime. It’s for fun. It’s an interesting story. I’m still not sure the author is trying to make a political statement with his premise. But I do wonder if this premise doesn’t indicate something about Japanese culture, about people’s perceptions about their country and history.

The mayor of Nagoya recently stated that he’s not sure that the rape of Nanjing actually happened. From the Japan Times:

Speaking Monday to a group of Chinese Communist Party members from Nanjing, Kawamura said he was skeptical about whether the Imperial Japanese Army actually raped and slaughtered thousands of Nanjing residents during the war.

[…]

“I don’t have any intentions of retracting my comments or apologizing,” Kawamura told reporters Wednesday.

[…]

Disputes over the Nanjing Massacre are a constant source of friction in Sino-Japanese relations, and Kawamura’s comments are merely another example of the skewed perceptions held by Japan’s politicans.

This made me wonder if the premise of Gintama doesn’t imply a sort of culture of denial, a general feeling that Japan is a blameless victim.

This sort of thing doesn’t just happen in Japan. Recently, a Japanese translator I follow on Twitter posted a picture from the American History museum in Washington, DC. It was a board on which visitors could stick up Post-It notes with their thoughts about the US’s use of internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Among the varied opinions, I spotted this one and others like it:

Well…they did attack PEARL HARBOR.

In this case, rather than deny the atrocities happened, people are trying to justify them, but it comes down to the same thing: people seeing what “they” did as horribly wrong, but what “we” did as right and proper. Anything can be acceptable if you assume righteousness is on your side: war, rape, torture, profiteering, prejudice, ignorance, silence.

Everyone wants to believe they are doing the right thing. It can hurt to take a step back and evaluate whether or not that’s really true.

Do we have anything to gain from entertainment that perpetuates our feeling of self-righteousness? Wouldn’t it be better to improve ourselves?

Edit March 22: Tofugu has an interesting post about Japanese textbooks that goes along well with this topic.

ACTA and TPP: The new(?) threat

Shortly after the SOPA blackout, I became aware of ACTA–the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. This is a treaty, negotiated in secret among various nations, whose ostensible purpose is to protect copyright. I then started hearing about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, purported to be even worse.

Despite the fact that many people are only now hearing about ACTA and TPP, these treaties have been around for awhile.

In a move that completely flouts the open style of government he claims to support, President Obama signed ACTA back in October, without getting public or legislative approval. Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Morocco, New Zealand, and Singapore also signed at that time. Many countries in the EU signed the agreement in Tokyo two days ago, but EU countries can still fight the ratification procedure. Here in the US, it’s currently unclear if what Obama did is constitutional, or whether the treaty must be approved by Congress.

Meanwhile, there’s the TPP, whose purpose, among myriad other things, seems to be to cover all the digital copyright stuff that was negotiated out of ACTA. Here is more information on the TPP from TechDirt, which has been following its evolution as best as you can follow the evolution of something being developed in near-absolute secrecy. Here’s a slightly dated rundown by the EFF. Most terrifying, given that like ACTA this treaty is being negotiated by people who are not our elected representatives, is this:

All signatory countries will be required to conform their domestic laws and policies to the provisions of the Agreement.

So basically these people, with no transparency, no input from citizens or democratically-elected officials, are rewriting global laws?

Just whose purposes are being served here?

E.D. Kain at Forbes has a discussion of how ACTA has evolved and how TPP continues to be developed in secret. Here’s a line that struck home with me–it’s an obvious allusion to the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act.

If lawmakers start baking restrictive IP laws into larger bills – maybe stitching them into defense funding bills, for instance – it may become increasingly difficult to see what’s happening.

The NDAA included a rider authorizing the indefinite detainment of US citizens by the military without trial. Attaching this egregious infringement of Constitutional rights as a rider on the military budget essentially held all military personnel and employees hostage; unsigned, it would have left them without any money as the new year started. The choice ended up being “unpaid soldiers” or “loss of liberty, with a note saying we promise never to actually do this”. The latter was chosen. (The author of this piece would say I’m being too generous to the president. Maybe I am. Time will tell.)

Obviously, riders are one effective way to get something passed that wouldn’t normally pass, and as Kain points out, this will surely be a tactic used in future intellectual property fights. But ACTA and the TPP bypass legislation completely, and they are shrouded in secrecy. We barely even know what’s going on before it’s happening to us.

If you’re interested in taking action on these issues, here are a few links that might help.

One thing that seems evident is that these treaties, developed in secret and intended to alter intellectual property law across the globe, are being backed by major copyright holders. Big corporations. The entertainment industry, to be blunt. I’ve already written on what I think they should be doing rather than trying to change the law to protect their dying business practices, but perhaps I was being too charitable. That they have wormed their way this far into not only our government, but governments around the world, is unconscionable.

I’ve heard that some are planning a complete media boycott for the month of March, to hit the proponents of this sort of legislation where it really hurts. Honestly, I’m not sure a month-long mass boycott is as plausible as a day-long internet blackout, but it certainly seems like the right strategy against executives who seem to only understand money.

Could you go a whole month without buying entertainment from big companies? No cable, no Netflix, no movie dates, no iTunes…heck, maybe a month off might prove which services you actually need and which ones you don’t even miss. And you could take the opportunity to discover some independent creators, people who just make good stuff and make it easy for people to buy it.

It could work. You could save some money. You could directly benefit actual content creators instead of middlemen. And you might help get big entertainment companies out of our government.

What do you think?

Save Ferris?

An internet subset, likely made up of Gen Xers, has been freaking out about this video:

At first glance, it might appear to be a teaser for a movie trailer. A more savvy inspection reveals it to be a teaser for a Super Bowl ad. And indeed, now there are reports that the ad will be for Honda.

I don’t really care. The premise is cute, I guess. But really, to me, today, with everything that’s going on with the economy, with unemployment the way it is (though apparently getting better), I really can’t get on board with a guy blowing off work.

Being something of a goody two shoes, I had trouble with Ferris even back in the prosperous 90s, when I watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on TV and marveled at how much trouble his selfishness caused for everyone. But I enjoyed the movie, and it helped teach me not to take everything so seriously. (I went a little too far the other way my first year of college with some egregiously selfish behavior, and then, over time, found balance.)

I don’t know if the movie’s carefree attitude quite works now, though. We’re no longer living in prosperous times. There’s no economic safety net. Plus, Ferris was originally about the end of childhood. One final adventure before college. What would skipping a day of work symbolize? A midlife crisis? An inability to grow up and take responsibility? Or just being a normal person? Everyone needs a day off every now and then, and I support the idea of non-specific PTO. Regardless, none of these seem quite as compelling as the original story’s “last hurrah”.

I think what appeals to people about this teaser is the memory of what it was like in the 80s and 90s. Maybe they wish they could run and hide in the past. Maybe they think if they watch a Ferris Bueller Super Bowl commercial, or a movie starring the adult Ferris Bueller, they’ll be more able to pretend that things are the same now as they were then. That everything’s fine, nothing to see here, move on.

Do that, though, and you’re just letting things get worse. You’re giving up control. If you want things to get better, if you want a return to prosperity, then you need to work for it, not just punch your time clock and then distract yourself with entertainment. You need to observe, and you need to think.

Save Ferris? I say, kick Ferris to the curb. We’ve got bigger problems than just wanting a day off.

Edit: Here’s the full ad. Did you relive your glory days? :>

Weigh anchor, Big Media

boatThe digital theft of copyrighted media and the sale of knockoff physical items are different issues and should be dealt with separately. They may seem on some level to be the same thing–taking profit away from copyright holders–but you can’t solve both problems the same way.

With physical items, it’s pretty easy to get evidence of the crime. A website selling knockoffs can generally be dealt with “old school”: find evidence of the counterfeit items, then, if it’s domestic, raid and make your arrests. If it’s outside the US, work with that country’s government to shut the perpetrators down.

When it comes to digital media, though, you run into many problems, not the least of which is the sheer amount of data. How do you target illegal activity without affecting legal activity?

The first important point is this: Who determines that copyrighted material has been illegally made available somewhere digitally, and how is this confirmed? “Because the copyright holder said so” is not good enough; there needs to be documented evidence that 1) the complainant does, in fact, hold the copyright; 2) that the item in question does exist on the website; and 3) that true copyright infringement has occurred, e.g. this is not a case of fair use. All of these items should be confirmed and documented before action is taken…or at least two out of three.

Second, how do we determine who is at fault–i.e., who to prosecute? Historically, site owners have not been not responsible for content posted by users. Forcing a site owner to moderate user-submitted content before it is posted to the site would effectively end user-submitted content; the workload would be unimaginable and impossible, even on smaller sites. The people’s voice would be silenced, not by the government directly, but by websites unwilling to be held liable for their users’ actions.

So, assuming we don’t put the onus of content vetting on the website owner, how is fault determined? Domestically, a site could be subpoenaed for information about the user/account involved in uploading the content. But abroad?

This is the line of thinking that went into SOPA/PIPA, which were targeted at foreign websites unreachable by US law. But those bills are hopelessly flawed. Rather than targeting copyright violators, they would simply close off foreign websites suspected of infringement from the US, effectively censoring parts of the world internet. A law that would allow this sort of blocking could be severely abused, and the average person wouldn’t even know it. Let’s be honest; we live in enough of a bubble already. Do we really need to be that much more out of touch with the rest of the world?

No; the only way to fight internet piracy via law enforcement is to target individual perpetrators. This may not be as exciting a solution as shutting down entire websites and raiding server rooms and offices, but it is the only governmental solution that doesn’t adversely affect unrelated individuals. The rights of people using the internet legally are just as important as the rights of copyright holders looking for justice; trampling one to bring victory to the other is to give one group undue priority and protection.

In fact, while individual users are being tried in court, their accounts and uploads and whatnot should be frozen, but not deleted, and the website itself certainly should not be shut down. It doesn’t matter if there’s one suspect or 50,000; unless you know for a fact that none of the content on a site is legal, you have no ethical right to shut it down. People rely on the internet more and more, and people’s needs are varied. What might seem to be nothing more than an illegal file-trading site to you might have some other legal purpose for someone else. Unless you can prove it doesn’t, no shutdown.

Any government shutdown of websites where users are suspected of engaging in illegal activities is a running start down a slippery slope of censorship. It could indeed lead to what some misguided SOPA/PIPA protesters feared–a shutdown of Facebook or YouTube. The point here is that the website is not on trial, unless it is the website’s owner herself offering the illegal material. To ensure a free and open internet, the utmost goal should always be to leave sites alone and go after individuals or groups.

Media executives don’t like this reality, of course. It’s slow. It takes a long time to amass proof. They actually have to go to court to get things done, instead of just having the government hatchet away the illegal activity for them with no due process. But ultimately, it’s the only solution that’s fair to all US citizens, not just media executives.

I believe the true solution to the digital piracy of media is not the government at all, but a radical change in media companies’ distribution paradigm.

The basic truth underlying all of this is that people want to enjoy the content being produced by the media company. Why not make it easy and legal for them to do so? Stream all video content online. Live stream TV shows and movies as they air, and include location-based commercials. Create a digital archive of content, or just use Hulu or Netflix or Amazon Prime. Post episodes online immediately after they air–don’t wait eight days like Fox so that it’s extraordinarily difficult to catch up in time for broadcast. Make sure all your video streams are playable on all devices.

Put your music on all the internet radio options. Put music videos on YouTube. Make tracks and albums downloadable on Amazon MP3 and iTunes.

Make every book, magazine, newspaper, or other printed material you offer available as an ebook.

Put everything online. Create different online directories to help people with differing interests find content relevant to them. Price everything low enough that people will find the cost and convenience just as good or better than getting the content free from some ad-filled, virus-infested download site.

Make everything so readily available that piracy would be ridiculous. And do this not just here in the US, but all across the world. And then watch online piracy dwindle. Oh, it’ll never die…but if people can easily enjoy the content they want legally, they’ll have far less of a reason to do it illegally.

One reason big media companies have been so ambivalent about online–trying things out but never fully committing–is that executives don’t believe online content will bring high profits. This is short-sighted, not to mention untrue. It’s their job to figure out how to make it profitable, not to pretend the world isn’t changing. The internet can’t just be put back in the box.

Another problem may be not having direction. Rather than deciding what exactly they want to do with their content online, companies might simply be looking around for existing widgets and solutions and services, or copying what someone else is doing. This is completely backwards; first the company should come up with a clear vision for online, and then they should set out to accomplish that vision with whatever tools they need.

I also believe media execs are afraid of how easy it is to distribute content online, and of people who choose not to use big companies for distribution. It reminds me of some news people’s initial reaction to bloggers. “That’s not real news. They can’t do what I do.” That bravado masked real fear, because the truth is, with the internet, anyone can do anything. Rather than denying the fact that alternative distribution methods exist, big media needs to commit to using them. Yes, these independent artists are competing for a slice of the pie. So compete with them.

Big Media, it’s time to weigh anchor and move forward. Things can’t stay the way they currently are. Think about it: How long has your current business model actually existed? Not really all that long, right?

Humans have a tendency to believe “the good old days” lasted forever, and anything new is scary and bad. But the truth is, there were no good old days. People have always made it up as they went along.

And that, Big Media, is what you need to do now.

Edit: Y Combinator has decided that the next startup they want to fund is one that would kill Hollywood. They’ve concluded that Big Media in its current form cannot continue to exist…a conclusion with which I obviously agree.

Fax your people in Congress about SOPA/PIPA

I used this website to send a free fax to my Senators and Representatives about SOPA/PIPA. The fax started out with a generic blurb, but there was a section where I could add my own thoughts. Here’s what I wrote:

Copyright holders already have ways to deal with infringing content, through the courts. Their real problem is their refusal to eschew their dated business practices and their insistence upon running to the government for help rather than finding better ways to market and distribute their content. Please don’t reward this backwards thinking by using taxpayer money on even more big government.