Defending Obama’s “Faith-Based” Funding Changes: Special Rules for the Religious?

July 7, 2008

I’m by and large indifferent to Obama’s promised expansion of “faith-based” funding, which like most government programs that target certain groups, is likely to boil down to patronage, just as it did in the Bush administration. Maybe he’ll do better, enforce some actual standards of quality and non-partisanship. In fact, given the outright disdainful incompetent way many of these programs have been run, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could do as badly. But politics has a certain gravity, not unlike economic markets, that quickly washes away one’s original intentions when it comes time to make policy. I can’t really celebrate or decry Obama on this stuff.

There are, however, some broader important church/state principles here, and a lot of people making arguments that I just don’t think hold water.

Most prominently, there’s the religious folks who are horrified that Obama is suggesting that they might have to play by the same rules as everyone else who receives government grants. The NYTimes calls it the “six little words” that threaten to throw a wrench into his overture to religious groups

Read the rest of this entry »


Blog Shorts: Bush Smears Jefferson, Colson Smears Atheists, Cthulhu Smears Your Entrails Across Campaign Trail

July 5, 2008

The web is a wondrous place, isn’t it? From just the last week:

Ed Brayton and Timothy Sandefur catch George Bush “honoring” Thomas Jefferson by altering his actual words to avoid any hint of anti-religious opinions.

From the “Theists Are Far Ruder to Atheists than Atheists Could Be in Return” File comes Chuck Colson, the convicted felon who thinks he’s better than you. Hemant at the Friendly Atheist is having none of it. Hemant’s also not buying the idea that requiring students to actually act out Islamic prayers is a legitimate way to teach them about world religions, even if the teacher is a Christian.

Over at Catholic and Enjoying It, Mark Shea manages to be more far more outraged about a story in which Muslims are supposedly outraged by a puppy than anyone in the story is actually outraged. But he makes up for it by his hearty endorsement of Cthulhu’s 2008 run for the White House. No More Years!

And finally, Orac over at Respectful Insolence bemoans yet another loss to the forces of woo: apparently some states, with Vermont the most prominant amongst them, are starting to require insurance companies to pay for the “evidence-free medicine” of naturopathy. Lest you think that such errant nonsense couldn’t possibly hurt you, Orac points out that it’s a move that will kick you right in the pocketbook:

I don’t know about you, but if I were paying into an insurance plan, and the company administering that plan were wasting money paying for woo, I’d be mightily pissed. This can only serve to drive up the costs for everyone, as patients with non-self-limiting diseases pursue non-science-based modalities, think they feel better for a while, and then find that their disease is progressing, at which point they seek out science-based medical care–which their insurance companies will have to pay for, too.


Obama Against “Mental” Exceptions to Late-Term Abortion Bans

July 4, 2008

Obama’s stance on abortion is pretty much in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, but with one critical difference when it comes to late-term abortions (i.e. abortions post fetal viability). And, luckily, for him, it’s precisely the exception I would make. Obama doesn’t think that “mental distress” should qualify as an exception to bans on late term abortions. This position puts him at odds with pro-abortion rights groups and members of his own party.

Still, I think it’s the right one. Anti-abortion groups have a legitimate fear that sufficiently vague “mental” health exceptions could undermine the point of the ban entirely: any person can develop “tremendous emotional toll” even from a normal pregnancy. But that really doesn’t fall under the same situation as health exceptions in general, and in practice, this exception can basically serve as an end-run around the ban. Groups like NARAL, of course, paint things differently:

The official position of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights group that endorsed Obama in May, states: “A health exception must also account for the mental health problems that may occur in pregnancy. Severe fetal anomalies, for example, can exact a tremendous emotional toll on a pregnant woman and her family.”

This is yet another situation in which I wish people on both sides of the abortion divide would just express what they actually mean: what specific conditions is NARAL talking about? Conditions like anencephaly, where the brain essentially has not formed properly, and the baby has no higher brain function and no chance of survival beyond a few weeks? (I’m in favor of allowing abortion in such cases) Or does it mean Down’s Syndrome, a missing arm, or a partially malformed gut? All of the latter could be called “severe anomalies,” but such babies are essentially normal in terms of their capacity to feel and suffer. (I’m against abortion in such cases) The details matter.

In any case, while he’s sure to take fire from liberals on this, Obama has about as much chance of getting any honest credit for his stance as the New York Mets do of winning the Superbowl. Anti-abortion groups are, of course, having none of it:

David N. O’Steen, the executive director of National Right to Life, said Obama’s remarks to the magazine “are either quite disingenuous or they reflect that Obama does not know what he is talking about.”

“You cannot believe that abortion should not be allowed for mental health reasons and support Roe v Wade,” O’Steen said.

O’Steen is technically right here: a companion case to Roe was Doe v. Bolton, which defined “health” exceptions very broadly, including considerations of “emotional, psychological, familial” factors. But O’Steen is still essentially dissembling: the definition, while broad, is also vague enough that someone like Obama could reasonably believe that those other factors could almost never, on their own, justify an exception.

O’Steen, of course, has no reason to be charitable and honest in how he portrays Obama. Even if Obama really is closer to his own stance on this issue (which he already has a decent reason to doubt), Obama’s party taking power in the White House is far far more important to his chosen issue (outlawing abortion) than giving him credit for a minor agreement and risking rank-n-file anti-abortion voters potentially seeing Obama more favorably.


More Journalists Have Been Waterboarded Than Have Terrorists

July 3, 2008

I’m a staunch anti-torture guy. The recent revelation that our government decided to literally copy the very same torture techniques used on our own soldiers in the Korean War (from a document discussing how the techniques were used to elicit false confessions, no less) is vile and embarrassing.

But I have to admit, despite what an incredibly pompous jerk Freddy Gray is while pointing it out, and as much as I disagree with his ultimate purpose of belittling the issue of torture, there is something sort of amusing and surreal about the fact that the number of journalists who have subjected themselves to waterboarding is probably now higher than the number of terrorists the U.S. used the actually technique on.

Still, forming a satirical group called “Stop Journalists From Waterboarding Themselves” is a bit much.


Warrantless Cell Phone Stalking: Can the Government Use Your Phone’s GPS?

July 3, 2008

Now here’s a really disquieting thought: virtually all new cell phones sold today have some form of passive GPS system (even if the phone itself doesn’t have features that use it). The ostensible purpose is for use in emergencies and 911, but information is information. And the result is that the government, at any time, without your knowledge, and apparently without a court order, can track your location via your phone: put a virtual tail on you.

You’d think that if the government felt it had the right to do this, it would at least inform the public of its new power. But despite ongoing suits by the ACLU and the EFF the government is still mum as to whether it’s done it… even though the documents uncovered so far suggest that they have.

But… I’m honestly not sure how I feel about this.

Kevin Drum discusses the issue here and here, and makes some good points. But he treats the idea that the government needs a court order to track people as obvious. I’m not so sure.

I do think Americans should have some expectation of privacy in their lives, and by and large, when the government wants to target them for any form of surveillance without their knowledge, a court should be involved.

I also think the legal issues over privacy are deeply muddled. The usual legal language used in this area is a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” But courts rarely mean that literally. There are many cases in which defendants pretty clearly did expect and fully believed that their was conduct was private, which should have made things an open and shut case. But often what courts really mean is “whatever reasonable expectation of privacy one might have if they researched the subject in depth.” On that score, the fact that most people don’t know that the government can use cell phone GPS’s to track them, and many don’t even know that their phones have GPS in the first place, will likely not count as a legitimate defense.

On the other hand, the information in question is collected by a private company, and all cell phone users implicitly agree to it in their service contracts. We might complain that no one really reads those darn things… but whose fault is that?

Once that information is collected, it’s no longer really the property of individual users, and if the cell phone companies want to create a database that keeps tabs on the location of every single one of their users over time… well, then can. And if they choose to hand this information over to the police…

The real problem here is that people are living in a world where technology is quickly changing what’s possible, but with very little re-examination of how that might alter the way we live, and what we demand from service providers and in terms of government legislation. And it’s probably going to take some scandals and crises before anything changes, and we as a society confront these sorts of issues head on.


Obama’s Faith Based Mistake

July 1, 2008

An Obama presidency, apparently, will mean more “faith-based” programs funded by the government. Starting life as Bill Clinton’s “Charitable Choice” and then becoming yet another a clumsy partisan bludgeon in the Bush administration under the name of his “faith-based initiatives,” the drive to drive more government money into the hands of religious groups has always had a questionable track record. Religious groups themselves have been wary of government strings attached, and a whole lot of questionable programs with dubious efficacy have ended up with oodles of handouts (and the payouts have often been suspiciously partisan).

So color me somewhat skeptical that an Obama-run version is going to be any better. I’m mostly with Barry Lynn: shut the program down entirely. Go back to simply funding non-profits to provide services, and let churches figure out how to organize as non-profit charities, including all the same regulations and responsibilities, if they want any moola. Let the rules be the same for everyone, instead of trying to give religious groups special treatment.

On the other hand, Obama does get the above issue mostly right where Bush got it wrong:

And while Bush supports allowing all religious groups to make any employment decisions based on faith, Obama proposes allowing religious institutions to hire and fire based on religion only in the non-taxpayer-funded portions of their activities — consistent with current federal, state and local laws. “That makes perfect sense,” he said.

It does. The issue is simple: when the government contracts out some service to a private organization, what they’re paying for is the service, not the promotion of someone else’s ideology. For many religious organizations, this is potentially a problem: they don’t want the taking of some government money to force them to change all of their programs and services and ideals. The solution is simply to keep a separate set of books: to separate out the charitable service from the religious part.

Catholic charities have, in fact, functioned like this for decades, mostly without any problems at all. The modern Catholic attitude here has always been the most laudable: help people first. Not as a means promote their religion, but because their religion calls us to do it. And if people are inspired by that, want to understand what would motivate such charity, well great.

Unfortunately, too many evangelical organizations basically see the promotion of their ideology itself as the primary act of charity in many of these endeavors. Sure, we’d like to get you off drugs. But it’s getting you hooked on Jesus that will really help you. And that’s where we run into problems… and get lame whining like this:

That’s because telling a small organization to keep employees hired with federal funds separate from others “is unmanageable — and besides those folks want to hire people who share their vision and mission,” Towey said.

Sorry, but that’s just pathetic. If you care more about your own vision and ideology than providing the charity or service you’re supposed to be providing, that’s fine. But in that case, you don’t have the right to expect other taxpayers’ money to pay for your proselytizing, or to get a gay taxpayer’s money for your program only to turn around and discriminate against the person who’s unwillingly paying for it.


Medved Can’t Stand Up to Rauch On Gay Marriage

June 30, 2008

I’ve made no secret that I’m a big fan of libertarian Jonathan Rauch. His book “The Kindly Inquisitors” is one of the best defenses of free speech and free inquiry in the modern era. And he made what is probably the best conservative case for gay marriage in his 2004 book, “Gay Marriage: Why it is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.” Most recently, he had an essay published in the Wall Street Journal, recounting that latter argument in brief: “Gay Marriage is Good for America

Well, talk-show roustabout Michael Medved isn’t impressed by Rauch’s argument. But, as you’d expect from a fellow of the Discovery Institute, bad ideas ensue.

Read the rest of this entry »


Why a Victory For Gun Rights Was a Defeat for the NRA

June 29, 2008

This is almost a “news of the weird” item.  Most people by now will have read or heard about the recent Supreme Court (DC vs. Heller) ruling that struck down Washington DC’s ban on handguns.  It’s a victory for the cause of gun rights to be sure, though folks like Randy Balko have pointed out that there’s plenty of room for skepticism as to how far the ruling really goes.

But what’s truly weird about the case are it’s enemies: the NRA and one of it’s chief votes in Congress, Orrin Hatch, who apparently did nearly everything in their power to derail the case largely because they didn’t control it (and, some suspect, because they wanted a delay or even a loss so that the issue could remain on their profitable radar of election outrages).

The sad thing is that the NRA will almost certainly tout the Heller victory in their fundraising efforts, and many of its members will even be tricked into celebratory donations. But there are plenty of smaller, less bloated and corrupt gun rights groups that actually supported this case from the outset who are far more deserving.

Gun rights isn’t a big issue for me: I think that the ownership of individual weapons of self-defense is, for good or ill, protected constitutionally, but I don’t see it as anywhere near as important of an issue to a functioning democracy as most other rights: I can imagine a good society with and without such a right, whereas I cannot in the case of things like free speech, free exercise, and so on.

But when it does come down to defending gun rights, no matter where you stand, it’s worth knowing who the real principled defenders are, and who’re the hapless hypocrites.


Texas Legalizes Abusive Exorcisms… Or Does It?

June 28, 2008

There’s been much dismay in the rational-o-sphere about a recent ruling by the Texas Supreme Court. The ruling concerns a case in which two “exorcisms” were performed on a minor, leading her to be injured and psychologically traumatized. The original jury held the church accountable, awarding the girl a few hundred thousand dollars. The Texas Supreme Court, on the other hand, found that the actions of the church were protected under the 1st amendment.

On the surface, this sounds like a pretty scary ruling: basically saying that a group can claim religious warrant for forcibly restraining someone against their will, injuring them, traumatizing them, and then get off scott free. But as I read through the full text of the opinion, the case looks decidedly more complicated.

Read the rest of this entry »


Obama Seal Gone: Nation’s Sanity Still in Question

June 24, 2008

The Obama campaign has rather wisely dropped the use of their latest logo, after much mockery.

Me, I’m left saddened and embarrassed for the media commentators who couldn’t resist piling on this story, and the many many people who took this non-issue seriously.

Political commentator Larry Sabato gets it right on the first try:

“The press corps adopts a subtext for each candidate,” Sabato told The Examiner. “Daddy Bush was ‘a nice guy but out of touch.’ Bill Clinton was ‘smart but randy.’ Bob Dole was ‘heroic but too old.’ Gore was ‘brilliant but a fibber and a bore.’ Dubya was ‘pleasant but dumb.’”

He added: “Obama’s subtext is rapidly becoming ‘charismatic but arrogant.’”

None of these characterizations of any of these politicians was built on honest, accurate, or comprehensive appraisal of any of these men. Few of the claimed traits (except maybe for Clinton being “randy” and Dole being “old”) actually seem more characteristic of the men in question than they are for the others. Instead, they’re built out of an accretion of heavily interpreted, and often factually challenged, fluff pieces. Of which this seal case was the perfect, almost paradigmatic, example.

This is one more reason I’m far more cynical about voters (more in the aggregate than any individual) than I am about politicians, or even the media. It’s ultimately voter behavior that drives how politicians act, react, and how they present themselves. It’s voter demand that favors schoolyard psychoanalyzing for their election coverage instead of actual policy debates.

Voters get legitimately frustrated and cynical about our political system. But the political system has just as much cause to be frustrated with voters right back.


Almost Final Word on Obama Seal Nonsense

June 22, 2008

I honestly haven’t had a lot of interest in doing much election commentary here at the Bad Idea Blog, but there’s always just so much stupid flying around that it’s often hard to help myself.

Bland... but outrageous apparentlyTake this latest manufactroversy: the Obama campaign has been sporting a new logo, which sports elements of the standard U.S. Seal designs.

Can you guess what happens next? Of course: people immediately declare that it’s a bastardization of the Presidential Seal. And that particular Seal, something no one gave any thought to two days ago, has suddenly become one of the most sacred and inviolable images in the national consciousness. Holy Arrogance Batman! cries one anti-Obama website.

Even if it was actually a version of the Presidential Seal, I’d still be at a loss as to exactly how it would be arrogant: campaigns remix all sorts of patriotic iconography for their materials all the time. But, in fact, it’s not even that.

SighFolks, if you want to style yourself the proud defenders of the honor of U.S. icons from the petty purposes of politicians, perhaps you should learn more about them first. The symbolic elements on Obama’s logo are not, in fact, unique to the Presidential Seal. They are, in fact, known as the Great Seal of the United States, and it’s found all over the place. It’s on various Congressional Seals as well, as well as various government agencies. It’s stamped on most official U.S. documents. (And no, desperate defenders, a non-forged non-reproduction of similar elements is not a violation of federal law, as some have claimed)

And it gets even more ridiculous. The Drudgereport has headlined the logo as “Obama Changes U.S. Presidential Seal…” Can you get any more ridiculous than that (yes, you can, for instance: John A. Davison)? Well, sorry to deflate the hew and cry, but the Presidential Seal has not been “changed.” It’s still exactly the same as it was as far as I can tell.

This is just yet another example of political pareidolia: people hyped up on campaign crack who inevitably fit every single news tidbit into the same caricature of already chosen candidate of their ire.

You see, the logo isn’t, can’t possibly be just some of the standard sorts of US iconography used and remixed a million different ways on lots of campaign materials. It couldn’t even just be a seal similar to the Great Seal. No no: it’s THE Presidential seal, and bastardized by Obama’s fabled ego.

From the way these people go on about it, it’s as if they imagined Obama personally stole an official seal a trip to the White House, cut it up with scissors, scrawled all over it, and spray-painted it blue.

Folks, that’s not even remotely how campaigns work. Here’s pretty much the spectrum of where these sorts of things usually come from:

1) Whatever random Democratic design firm Obama’s campaign employs is tasked with coming up with a new logo. They, a bunch of random folks in a boardroom with a whiteboard, sit around brainstorming, pump out a few clunkers, and campaign people eventually reject most of them, liking bits of others. At the end of the process, they end up with the one everyone hates the least. And we’re off.

2) The campaign goes more grassroots: it needs a new logo, and fast, and HQ scrambles. Some random teenager “hey, I’m pretty good with photoshop!” and whips this up. The campaign, or even the candidate pats them on the head, and says “uh, thanks kid!” And we’re off.

But of course, none of that sort of inoffensive everyday nonsense fits easily into the “arrogance” narrative.

I can’t wait until this election is over, and the collective IQ of the country shoots back up to normal.


Teacher Who Burned Crosses into Student’s Arms Gave Extra Credit for Expelled Film

June 20, 2008

The science-blogosphere has been following the story of John Freshwater, a Mount Vernon public school teacher, for some time. The man is clearly off his rocker. He burned a cross into the arms of one his students. In class. And in addition to a host of definitive religious assertions to students during class time, Bibles and other religious materials featured prominently in the classroom, Ed Brayton also notes that:

He kept creationist books and videos in his classroom, including at least one video and one book by Kent Hovind. He also kept the book Refuting Evolution there. Parents showed the investigators handouts from religious groups slamming evolution and claiming that dinosaurs and humans lived together, among other things.

He even used, as a class example of how “science can be wrong” (a perfectly legitimate and even important thing to teach) the idea that science may have found a genetic basis for homosexuality, which of course meant that ‘In that case science is wrong because the Bible states that homosexuality is a sin’ (which is not even close to a legitimate thing to teach in public school).

But from Panda’s Thumb comes word of an even more intriguing tidbit in the recently released report on his conduct:

Mr. Freshwater gave an extra credit assignment for students to view the movie “Expelled” which does involve intelligent design.

Mmmm hmmm…

Interestingly, this is one of the few cases in which I’ve heard about Expelled successfully penetrating into a school classroom, which was supposedly one of its primary goals. And, surprise surprise, it comes from a young earth creationist using a public school classroom as his bully pulpit.

One who feels at liberty to brand his religious beliefs directly into the skin of his students. Teach Burn the controversy!

Update: Freshwater fired. Countdown watch until the DI claims him as another martyr for intellectual freedom…