Bullshit Philosophy

Half-assed political and religious commentary from a cynical left-winger

Archive for March, 2009

Random thoughts on the Vermont gay marriage hearings

Posted by Kevin on March 20, 2009

As you may or may not be aware, a gay marriage bill is currently being considered by the Vermont legislature (an expansion of the first-in-the-nation civil union law passed in 2000). It’s probably going to pass; the main question is whether the Republican governor is going to veto it. He’s not especially conservative socially, but he’s on the record in opposition to the bill, calling it too divisive and a distraction from dealing with the economy. This despite claims from marriage supporters – including business groups – that it will actually help the economy. Just today the bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously.

On Wednesday I went to the public hearing on the bill in Montpelier, although I didn’t actually get to see the testimony; I got stuck in an overflow room because, as the Burlington Free Press reports, over 1000 people showed up, but there was an audio feed so we could still hear it. Among the part of the crowd I saw, the vast majority were marriage supporters; you could tell because each side passed out buttons and/or stickers. I was there with the pro- side, obviously, as were my wife and one of our friends. As for people testifying, from BFP again: “[the committee] heard from about 70 Vermonters, although about 200 signed up to speak. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Sears, D-Bennington, said there were 115 for same-sex marriage and 85 against on the list.”

This post isn’t intended to be all-inclusive of everything that happened at the hearing, just some general thoughts on things that stood out to me. The BFP link above includes video of some of the testimony if you’re interested in hearing more; the Valley News has good coverage as well.

Listening to the testimony, one thing that struck me about the opposition was that many of them didn’t even bother making a secular argument for their position, especially the clergy that testified (one of whom railed against the threat posed by “secular humanism”). They obviously didn’t feel they had to; it’s God’s will, so they think that should be enough justification to keep people stripped of their rights. Admittedly, these people were in the minority of those testifying against marriage, but that doesn’t mean that religion wasn’t a large part of the opposition’s case. It’s important to note that the main identifier for opponents that I saw was stickers that said “Don’t Change God’s Plan, 1 woman, 1 man.”

I was, however, surprised at how few people ranted against “the homosexual agenda,” or talked about homosexuality as being immoral. That doesn’t mean they don’t think that, of course, but it might hint that they think they’re on the losing side of that argument.

The other prominent theme in the marriage opponent’s arguments was respect for tradition. “It’s ALWAYS been one man and one woman! Surely civilization will collapse if gay marriage is legalized!” Similarly, some people talked about gay marriage as denigrating their marriages. How? They didn’t say. I think one could make a good argument that this sort of fear of change is an even bigger motivation for opponents of gay marriage than religion.

The obvious reply to this argument is that moral standards do change over time, otherwise we’d still be stoning disobedient children, for just one example. Even the definition of marriage has changed, and only the most ardent theocrats want to turn back the clock on the issue. Lisa Miller had a good article on this in Newsweek some time back. “[N]o sensible modern person wants marriage—theirs or anyone else’s —to look in its particulars anything like what the Bible describes,” Miller wrote.

Marriage opponents, and religious fundamentalists more generally, never explain why we should studiously follow scripture on the subjects of marriage or homosexuality even as they willfully toss out huge chunks that are incompatible with their lives in modern society.

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Request for comment

Posted by Kevin on March 17, 2009

So, I’m curious as to whether anyone uses the widget on the left sidebar for my Facebook posted items. I use it to post links to recommended articles without cluttering up the blog. In addition, there have been points in time where I’ve done more writing in the comments section for posted items than I have here (something I’m trying to remedy).

I know you have to be on Facebook for it to work, but I don’t know whether or not you have to be my friend, which is one of the reasons I’m posting this. Can anyone use it, and if so, does anyone use it? Is there a better mechanism I could be using for the sharing of links?

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The differences between the parties are greatly exaggerated

Posted by Kevin on March 4, 2009

During the last election season many people talked about a supposed vast chasm of difference between Barack Obama and John McCain. This framing of national politics is ubiquitous in political commentary, and true in a number of areas, but also greatly exaggerated.

The media plays a large role in the creation of the frame, magnifying the contrast between the candidates to make the election more exciting so you’ll tune into their coverage, and also to distract attention from the issues that aren’t discussed because there’s no substantive difference between the candidates. Israel/Palestine, the Wall Street bailout, the drug war, American imperialism, etc. It also helps justify their exclusion of third-party and independent candidates from election coverage – who needs them when we’ve already got such a vigorous debate going with just the two main ones?

The two establishment parties, of course, have every incentive to make the other look like the Antichrist. People wouldn’t be very motivated to vote if they thought the election was just a choice between the right- and left-hand sock puppets, or they might consider supporting a third-party or independent candidate, and we wouldn’t want that.

In addition, progressive Obama supporters often justified their support for the candidate on these grounds – “Sure, he’s far from perfect, but there’s soooo much difference between him and McPain!” They could get borderline apocalyptic talking about the consequences of a McCain victory. The same argument is used by conservatives talking about Obama, both then and now (how many times have we heard Obama referred to as a socialist?).

All too typical in this regard from the progressive side is this statement from Greta Christina (in a post I’ve quoted previously):

This isn’t a “There’s no difference between the two candidates” situation. There is a massive difference between the candidates. On the war. On the regulation of the financial industry. On abortion. On gay rights. On health care. On the environment. On virtually every issue that matters to most progressives.

While that’s undoubtedly true on many (but not all, in my opinion) of the issues she cites, there were other issues where you practically needed a microscope to tell the candidates apart, where the disagreements are more rhetorical than substantive. Given Obama’s stacking of his administration with neoliberal economists and his backsliding on civil liberties, a more honest slogan for his campaign might have been “Continuity We Can Believe In.”

A good example of this is the occupation of Iraq. Admittedly, even I believed during the campaign that, while Obama’s position wasn’t nearly good enough, it was certainly an improvement over that of John “100 Years” McCain. And yet, according to the Huffington Post, McCain has now embraced Obama’s Iraq plan and says he would’ve done roughly the same thing. I guess the sky wouldn’t be falling after all if McCain had won, at least in regard to the Iraq issue.

Likewise, the rosy picture painted of Obama’s position, both then and now, by his supporters, including much of the “antiwar” movement – “He’s going to end the war!” – is a huge exaggeration. At least, depending on how you define “ending the war.” The latest reports indicate that Obama wants to leave as many as 50,000 troops in Iraq, he’s just not going to call them “combat troops.” This is what the Washington establishment calls “ending the war.”

This isn’t exactly a surprise; Obama was pretty clear during the campaign that he wanted to leave a “residual force” in the country and had enormous “conditions on the ground” caveats even for his meager plan. So we’re still dealing with a large indefinite American presence in the country. And the troops that he does withdraw will likely just end up in a ramped-up war in Afghanistan. I’d really like to know what progressives think they’ve gained on this issue by electing Obama, and why they let him run as the “antiwar” candidate.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying there are no meaningful differences between the establishment parties. Just that on may issues the contrast is not as huge as some would like you to believe. My position is that, as Glenn Greenwald argued, “Critical political debates are at least as often driven not by the GOP/Democrat dichotomy, but by the split between the Beltway political establishment and the rest of the country.” Or, as David Sirota memorably put it, the real division isn’t between red and blue but between the Money Party and the People Party, with all too many Democrats winding up in the former.

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