Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Tacking into the Wind

The clash over Governor Scott Walker's effort to strip Wisconsin's public unions of the right to collectively bargain has reached a new level of intensity. This morning Governor Walker gave his ultimatum to the absent Senate Democrats: return to Madison or state workers will receive layoff notices. In the latest of a string of escalations Walker's stubborn refusal to compromise or negotiate has inflamed passions on all sides of the debate. The governor insists that his actions are backed by the people of Wisconsin riding the political wave that swept him into office. In spite of this his claims of popular mandate as justification are running aground of growing grassroots opposition to his radical agenda.

Scott Walker has advanced his union-busting bill under the cover of his recent election as vindication of his platform. Walker has insisted from the beginning his plan is in line with his platform of fiscal responsibility. Walker's unsupported spending aside it is highly unlikely that most voters think of rolling back labor rights as necessary for fiscal responsibility. The elimination of the right of public employee unions to collectively bargain was something Walker never argued for while on the campaign trail. Far from being a major element of his message Scott Walker never discussed the possibility of breaking the backs of the public unions of Wisconsin. It would make sense for him to cite the public's backing for an issue he actually discussed unless being successfully elected to state office allows the officeholder to campaign retroactively.

All of this assumes Walker has the public at his back. If anything Walker's plan is running headlong into strong political winds. Before being sworn in the governor only enjoyed a 41% approval rating. His hardball tactics, far from inspiring the public with his resolve, have largely succeeded in solidifying public support for the unions. The growing opposition is not limited to college students, unions, and Democratic activists. The President of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce recently released a statement declaring that while they support pushing for a balanced budget, “That support ends at the adversarial way elected officials are approaching it.” She goes on to say that with Wisconsin's long history of collective bargaining, “policy changes of this magnitude should be thoroughly debated for an adequate period of time, in good faith by both sides, with all potential consequences considered.”

Scott Walker's most recent escalation, the threat of layoff notices, has exposed how weak his hand is. By Walker's own statement no layoffs will happen yet. In Wisconsin public employees receive early notices of being laid off as prior warning. A layoff notice does not put anyone in the unemployment line. The actual layoffs are scheduled for July. This is not to say the threat of people losing their jobs over the budget fight is not serious but the details take a lot of the wind out of it. If anything it comes across as more of a desperate bluff than a genuine threat. That Walker's ploy sounds more like hostage taking than negotiation undermines the credibility of his claims of seeking a fiscally responsible budget.

Scott Walker's union busting campaign has been disguised as fixing a fiscal emergency. His claims of enjoying the public's mandate to act so radically are adrift. For all his bravado in public Walker is sitting on a ticking time bomb. In Wisconsin any public official can be recalled if they have been in office for a year. With the budget bill only needing three votes to be defeated eight of the Republicans who supported it are in danger of facing a recall. One of the most popular chants is to recall Walker himself. While he will not be vulnerable until 2012 his allies in the state legislature are not so lucky. As the public's anger rises Scott Walker and his party will reap the whirlwind sown by their ruthless campaign against a century of workers' rights.

Also published at Pagans+Politics

Monday, February 21, 2011

Guided by the Gods - Human Nature and Asatru

Human nature is one of the foundation stones of ethical philosophy. Every philosophy the world over, from Rousseau’s theories on the General Will to Lord Shang's stark Legalism, are based on fundamental axioms of what defines humanity. These assumptions regarding human nature determine how one should treat other people, view the world, and live your life. In the West the most dominant theories of human nature can be summed up in one of two schools of thought.

One school of thought holds that humans are inherently flawed by nature. Whether the cause is Original Sin or our barbarous natural state the assumption remains the same. Humans are imperfect. Society must therefore assume that people will, given the choice, give in to their base natures putting their self-interest ahead of all other concerns. If one assumes that people are innately flawed and prone to acting in a potentially destructive fashion to fulfill their base desires then all responses are going to assume that people must be restrained for their own good.

This is not the only understanding of humanity that has sprung up in the West. The other holds a much more positive view. This view, first summed up by John Locke in his Two Treatises on Government, argues that humans far from being creatures driven by impulses we must struggle against are blank slates when we come into the world. We are neither good nor evil by nature but instead boundless potential shaped by our experiences in life. We are not given to destruction as a result of being human but as a consequence of one's experiences and circumstances. In this understanding humans do not need to be held back from danger but given the best tools to guide ourselves to the best possible outcome in pursuing our desires.

The genesis of the assumption of flawed humanity can be found in the creation myth of Christianity. While later philosophers like Thomas Hobbes have built on the foundation Genesis provides it is from the first book of the Bible that this assumption is born. In Genesis Yahweh creates the first two human beings, Adam from dust and Eve from his rib, and places them in charge of the paradisaical Garden of Eden. In the Garden He places two trees, one the Tree of Life which gives life everlasting and the forbidden Tree of Knowledge which gives understanding of the world. It is in this idyllic setting created for humans shaped in the image of God that the Original Sin, the first act of willful disobedience, took place. By eating from the Tree of Knowledge Adam and Eve disregarded the restraints imposed by Yahweh leading to their exile from Eden and the end of Paradise on Earth. In this narrative we see the classic hallmarks of the understanding of humanity as flawed. Humans must be restrained for their own good, which we may or may not understand, and we are given to trespass by our nature in spite of these necessary restraints. This assumption casts humans as being torn between free will and their destructive base urges forever locked in a battle to do what is right.

The more positive, blank slate idea is one that for the modern world was born with Locke and the Enlightenment. Yet this is not the first time this idea took root in Western thought. It is from the Voluspo, the whirlwind tour of Norse cosmology, where we find this idea rooted deeply in pre-Christian Germanic thought. This saga describes the creation of Midgard, the Earth, and the ordering of the universe by the Gods. Part of this, quite predictably, includes the creation of humans by the Gods. In the Voluspo three Gods; Odin, Honir, and Lodur, are walking along a beach in Midgard having shaped the world and set its boundaries. On their walk they come across two pieces of driftwood. They decide to take up the dead logs and give them life, making the first two humans. As it says in the Voluspo:

Soul they had not, sense they had not

Heat nor motion, nor goodly hue

Soul gave Odin, sense gave Honir

Heat gave Lothur and goodly huei

After creating the first humans the Gods let them go on their way. There is no special charge or rules handed down after They finish their work. Ask and Embla are given shape, life, and sense before going out into the world to live their lives.

Aside from the obvious differences there is a profoundly different assumption about human nature in these two creation stories. In Genesis humans are created from nothing in a perfect world under the firm hand and guidance of Yahweh to serve as His stewards for creation. When they fail to follow the rules He arbitrarily laid down humanity is marked with Original Sin for all time and cast out into the wilderness. The Voluspo couldn't be any further from Genesis in intent if it was deliberately trying. Odin, Hoenir, and Lodur do not lay down any special tasks, prohibitions, or directives to Their new creations. They do not admonish them to obey unexplained rules. All They do is give form, life, and sense then let the first humans go on their way. Humans are not made in the image of a perfect God and marked with an original, underlying flaw that will perpetuate their imperfect nature as an act of punishment. Humans in Germanic lore are divinely created with the Gods letting them live their lives.

This distinction is a fundamental one when it comes to the question of human nature. In Judeo-Christian tradition the flawed, sinful nature of humanity is the justification for needing repentance and redemption. The problems with humanity are ones that are inescapable partially because they are imposed from on high as a punishment for disobedience. This simultaneous tug of war between perfection and damnation drives human motivation in the Abrahamic tradition. Humanity, because of this fall from grace, must redeem itself in the eyes of Heaven. Consistently humans are portrayed in the Bible as sinful, given to their base desires, and easily tempted. This is escalated in Christianity and Islam with the inclusion of adversarial figures; Satan and Iblis respectively, who war with God to bring down humanity. Caught between mighty forces and their own drives humans must strive to do what they have been told is right trusting in the ineffable wisdom of God.

In the Heathen tradition humanity is not trapped in such a conundrum nor is it cast in such a negative light. Humans were shaped by the Gods then left to go out into Midgard. We are not given stewardship over the world sculpted from Ymir's flesh but neither are we punished with any equivalent of Original Sin. This implies a strong sense of trust the Gods have in us. They did not put us in a special, controlled paradise to be watched over with unexplained rules handed down. They created humans and let us go on our way, secure in Their knowledge that the gifts of life, sense, and form we received from Them would be enough. Instead of coddling and sheltering humans from the world then thrusting them out as punishment They put us in Midgard and trusted that Their gifts were all they needed to give us. This tremendous level of trust by the Gods implies that humanity was not viewed as some innately flawed creation that had to be set on a specific path to avoid falling into self-destruction. It says humans are perfectly capable of living our lives with the gifts the Gods gave us as a compass to guide help guide us. This is not to say there are no expectations of what is right and wrong but rather that the Gods trust us to do what is right without divine proclamations setting the boundaries.

The Heathen view is an optimistic understanding of human nature. We are not imperfect creatures given to falling in to destruction without a firm hand to guide us but beings divinely shaped and gifted with the freedom to stumble and learn from our mistakes. Quite contrary to the Abrahamic view which holds a somewhat pessimistic view of humanity the Heathen understanding is one where humans have no such inherent flaws. Having never been punished with the burden of the constant danger of temptation and sin we are free to shape our lives through our deeds with the gifts of Odin, Honir, and Lodur as the tools to do it.

iVoluspo 18, Poetic Edda translated by Henry Adams Bellows

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Wisconsin Deficit “Crisis”, the Madison “Riots”, and Other Myths

The political situation in Wisconsin has come to a head following the proposal of a budget bill by newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker which would for all intents and purposes strip public employees with the exception of police, firefighters, and state troopers of the right to collectively bargain. Governor Walker has claimed this radical measure is necessary to avert a deficit crisis for the state of Wisconsin. The situation has rapidly escalated with Walker threatening to call out the National Guard shortly after introducing the bill. Demonstrations broke out almost immediately with Wisconsin State Senate Democrats leaving the state to prevent a vote on the bill. The conservative media has advanced in full force unconditionally supporting the Governor's union-busting measure claiming the state is on the edge of total chaos. Glenn Beck has taken to the airwaves claiming the city of Madison is rioting as has the Wall Street Journal's editorial page. Voices like Rush Limbaugh and Republican Congressman Paul Ryan have repeated this assertion of chaos in the street. Above all they have consistently advanced the argument that gutting the rights of workers is necessary to balance Wisconsin's budget.

All of these arguments and claims by the conservative movement are bald-faced lies.

This is not hyperbole or exaggeration. These claims of civil disorder in the streets and a deficit crisis are completely at odds with the facts. Contrary to the fear-mongering claims of Glenn Beck the demonstrators in Madison have remained orderly and peaceful. The Madison Police Department released a statement today saying they are proud of the way the protestors have conducted themselves. The only advisory from the Madison Police to the public is a notice to motorists of greater congestion in the vicinity of the Capitol. If you don't believe the police there are the photos submitted by people in Madison showing large, energetic, and perfectly peaceful crowds. Hardly what one could seriously call a riot.

The next falsehood being circulated is the claims of a deficit crisis. The line of reasoning goes that it is only possible to balance the budget by completely destroying the right of public workers to collectively bargain. It skips straight past negotiations, furloughs, and other austerity measures to one of the most extreme solutions possible. 44 states are currently facing serious budget problems and yet the only other state considering such a radical tactic is Ohio. With such an extraordinary measure being advanced and the National Guard being readied in case of strikes it sounds like the deficit in Wisconsin must be insurmountable. This again is wrong. The Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau issued a report on January 31st asserting the bulk of the budget shortfall of $202 million was caused by a series bills supported by Governor Walker. Quite contrary to his claims of union benefits and salaries being the cause it was his own deficit spending that created the alleged crisis.

Governor Scott Walker has created a crisis and rapidly escalated it in a bid to crush the public employee unions of the state of Wisconsin. There wouldn't be a budget crisis of Walker genuinely practiced what he preached on the campaign trail. There are no facts supporting any of the claims of civil disorder or a deficit crisis. Walker's attempt to ramrod a rollback of the rights of workers by a century has nothing to do with fiscal conservatism and everything to do with political opportunism. His readying of the National Guard over budget negotiations is extraordinary overkill. If Governor Walker was genuinely interested in serving the people and balancing the state budget he should sit down with the state workers and negotiate not threaten them with an unnecessary and malicious attack on their most basic rights.

Also published at Pagans+Politics

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Shrinking the Size of Government

In 2010 the Republican Party ran on the platform of reducing the size of government and job creation. While the job creation part is debatable, with their only success so far being failure at repealing the health care bill, the reducing size of government is not. True to form, as was shown consistently in the Bush years, the GOP has set their sights on shrinking government so small it could fit in your pants. With the introduction of the No Taxpayer Funds for Abortion Act has genuinely outdone itself introducing a law that would undermine the establish consensus on the issue.

Abortion is a very contentious issue in modern American politics and has been since 1973 with the controversial Roe vs. Wade ruling. The main dividing line consistently has been the issue of being in favor of legalized abortions or opposition. Yet in spite of this well-established and reported divide a consensus in recent years has emerged. As shown in two recent polls by CBS News and the Virginia Commonwealth Institute Life Sciences Survey the most popular position on the issue is allowing for abortions to remain legal with certain restrictions. In the Virginia Commonwealth survey the number of Americans in favor of allowing exceptions for the health of the mother, rape, or incest outnumber those who support full repeal by a margin of 3 to 1. This tenuous consensus on the subject is best expressed in federal law by the Hyde Amendment:
SEC. 508. (a) The limitations established in the preceding section shall not apply to an abortion--

(1) if the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest; or

(2) in the case where a woman suffers from a physical disorder, physical injury, or physical illness, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself, that would, as certified by a physician, place the woman in danger of death unless an abortion is performed.
The Hyde Amendment itself is not a law but a provision attached first to the 1976
budget as a compromise on the issue of federal funds from programs such as Medicaid and Medicare being used to pay for abortions. It was viewed by the young anti-abortion movement at the time as a major victory. Since 1976 the Hyde Amendment has been attached to every omnibus spending bill, most recently in the 2009 bill. It has stood as the established compromise on the subject for 35 years. This compromise mirrors the modern American public's general consensus of the legality of abortion.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago when the Republican Party, instead of tackling jobs, spending, or the economy, advanced the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortions Act. The most odious provision would rewrite the core of the long-standing Hyde Amendment:
SEC. 309. Treatment of Abortions Related to Rape, Incest, or Preserving the Life of the Mother

The limitations established in sections 301, 302, 303, and 304 shall not apply to an abortion--

(1) if the pregnancy is an act of forcible rape, or incest with a minor; or

(2) in the case where a woman suffers from a physical disorder, physical injury, or physical illness that would, as certified as a physician, place the woman in danger of death unless an abortion is performed, including a life-threatening physical condition, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself.
This provision has attracted the bulk of the focus of the pro-choice movement and other opponents of the proposed bill. Unlike the Hyde Amendment this bill specifically declares the only form of rape that can receive public funding is "forcible rape." On its face this sounds reasonable and the argument has been made that this is not a substantive change. When one looks under the hood is when you discover what this would really mean if put into practice.

First off there is no definition offered anywhere in the bill itself for what constitutes "forcible rape". While the term is in use in American legal parlance and is on the books in states like Missouri and Louisiana it is found nowhere in federal law. The federal law dealing with rape, aggravated sexual abuse, does not use this term. It is not set as its own charge anywhere in US law. This lack of definition by itself is disturbing but what is worse is when you dig in to how "forcible rape" is used in US law. The FBI definition specifically calls out forcible rape as rape committed by force or threat of force. It specifically excludes other forms which are covered under the aggravated sexual abuse statute as "By Other Means". Rape that is considered by other means includes date rape and rendering the victim unconscious before violating them. This also leaves off statutory rape and victims who have diminished mental capacity. By only specifically covering "forcible rape" this bill has declared, as far as Medicaid is concerned, that these other forms of rape are somehow less heinous. It says if a woman is for whatever reason incapable of fighting back and she cannot afford the procedure herself then she's up the famous creek without a paddle. It says that a fetus conceived by date rape is more important than the victim.

Shockingly enough this is not the worst the bill would inflict on countless lives. In the same sentence as this arrogant dismissal of so many women the bill further declares that the only acts of incest eligible for funding are cases where the woman is a minor.

Yes, the bill would only allow public funds to be used in cases of incest where the woman is a minor. As it says in black and white:

"or incest with a minor"
There is no fathomable reason why this specific exclusion is necessary. There is no moral or ethical justification in any belief system of any kind in the world that condones incest in any fashion. The fact that the woman in question is not a minor does not change that incest is still incest. There's no special circumstances when incest magically stops being incest. Whatever the warped justification may be this reinforces the total disregard for women inherent in the thinking behind the abortion bill. It implies that if an adult woman, for whatever reason, is impregnated with a child by incest that on some level it was her fault. When you put it alongside forcible rape it shows a shocking disregard for women implying that somehow, on some level, they brought it on themselves and deserve what they get. This bill is the GOP's way of telling women everywhere, "The most important thing you could ever do is make a baby."

This bill isn't the product of some radical fringe element of the Republican Party. It has 173 co-sponsors the vast majority of which are Republicans. The sponsors, far from being obscure backbenchers, include Speaker of the House John Boehner and Tea Party icon Michelle Bachmann. The party has closed ranks on the bill working to push it through the House as quickly as possible with Tea Party Republicans falling in line. Instead of doing the will of the people as they claimed the GOP is advancing the interests of a tiny minority of religious fundamentalists who have yet to receive the memo that we live in the 21st century, not the 11th.

One can imagine there is some kind of twisted rationale for this assault on women's rights as a means to reduce the size of government. With sufficient mental gymnastics one could claim this is aimed at reducing waste and fraud in government. If one warps their logic enough it could be reasoned that women are somehow taking advantage of Medicaid. Or one could do even worse and turn a blind eye to the obvious injustice for the sake of nothing better than myopic partisan favoritism and claim the bill doesn't really say what is in black and white.

This makes even less sense than the incest clause.

Why in the name of all that is holy would a woman want to be a victim of rape or incest? How exactly can one abuse funding that is specifically for paying for a medical procedure? This isn't welfare or worker's comp fraud where one can take actual money. To somehow "game" the system the woman would have to be deliberately getting raped, conceiving a child, and going to Medicaid for help paying for the abortion.

There is no rational justification for the Republican Party to ram this bill through the House. This will not shrink the size of government to any noticeable degree. There is no moral or ethical reason to inflict this thing except in the minds of the most rabid Christian fundamentalists. By advancing this bill the GOP has shown that the Republican elephant can't and won't change its hide.

UPDATE: The House GOP has removed the most offensive section of the bill. Looks like they figured out that redefining rape isn't what the people had in mind last November.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Mapping the Religious Right: Focus on the Family

The Religious Right is a powerful force in American politics and society, tipping elections and making themselves one of the most influential voting blocs in the country. Their objectives are worn on their sleeves; their zeal unquestionable. Yet for everything that is known far more remains just out of common knowledge. In this series we will delve into this unknown tracking down more on their most powerful players, money, influence, and how they achieve their goals.

Focus on the Family, one of the many intellectual children of Dr. James Dobson, represents another facet of the Religious Right's machinery and organization. Unlike their sister group the Family Research Council Focus on the Family is much less of a lobbying organization and does most of their work outside of DC. While the FRC keeps their headquarters in Washington DC Focus on the Family runs their operations from Colorado Springs, a city dubbed the “Evangelical Vatican” thanks to the high concentration of world-famous megachurches and larger-than-life pastors. This distance from Washington has done little to dent their influence and effectiveness as a major force in the Religious Right. By leaving the heavy lobbying efforts to other organizations Focus on the Family serves as one of the main spearheads of grassroots operations across the country with allies around the world.

Focus on the Family was founded by Dr. James Dobson in 1977 to promote and uphold family values in the United States. Focus on the Family styles itself as less overtly political than other organizations. To cooperate with the Holy Spirit in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with as many people as possible by nurturing and defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide” is their mission statement. Nowhere do they overtly proclaim support for traditional Republican Party positions instead focusing exclusively on religious slogans and imagery. In spite of recent shakeups in their finances and leadership the organization has kept up their main operations with little disruption: the dissemination of Christian fundamentalist propaganda. To Focus on the Family separation of Church and State exists to protect churches from government coercion, not to establish a secular government. On this ideological foundation they advance laws based on their religious beliefs on many issues including gambling, educational policy, the teaching of intelligent design, gay rights, abortion, and women's rights.

The main front Focus on the Family engages is traditional marriage. Focus on the Family has consistently and most heavily engaged in the fight against gay marriage by offering their own brand of marriage counseling as the public face of the effort. Their main argument against gay marriage include claims of the downfall of Western civilization as one of the many consequences. To advance their efforts Focus on the Family raises and spends millions of dollars a year for advertising and advocacy campaigns. One of their more direct approaches is the Love Won Out Ministry, a group that claims to “cure” homosexuality. To provide further support they publish a number of studies claiming scientific basis to support their claims. These publications have been denounced by the American Psychological Association and the Royal College of Psychiatrists as unscientific and promoting an atmosphere of hate. The war against gay rights, while a major focus of effort for the organization, is just a part of Focus on the Family's crusade to reclaim America in the name of the cross.

As part of advancing their objectives Focus on the Family uses their prominent position and network of allies in the Religious Right to rally support for their agenda. One excellent example is the National Day of Prayer Task Force. Officially the Task Force is not affiliated with Focus on the Family in any meaningful fashion. Their main office is in Focus on the Family's headquarters in Colorado Springs and their current Chairman is Shirley Dobson who assumed the position in 1991. During the Bush Administration the Task Force coordinated the observances thanks to annual presidential proclamations giving them unofficial but clear government support. Non-Christian groups that applied to participate were regularly ignored. In the 2008 Presidential campaign, through their PAC Focus on the Family Action, they spent millions of dollars in support of John McCain's campaign following the selection of Sarah Palin as Vice Presidential nominee. They bankrolled an extensive mailing campaign predicting doom and gloom if the GOP lost the 2008 election. Focus on the Family does not put all their proverbial eggs in one basket. They have a network of international affiliates in New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, Ireland, and Africa just to name a few.

Focus on the Family presents another facet to the Religious Right's political machine. Unlike the Family Research Council they work largely in grassroots efforts eschewing a heavy emphasis on Washington lobbying for a substantial propaganda arm and international reach. While they escaped being labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center Focus on the Family remains a powerful force in the Religious Right. With substantial funding and support Focus on the Family in spite of recent shakeups and setbacks remains on the front lines as a crucial element for Christian fundamentalists in the Culture War.

Also published at Pagans+Politics