Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Strange Bedfellows

The other day, in a class on Ethics in Public Policy, I found myself saying something that felt extremely strange coming out of my mouth. I said "I agree with the Bush Administration." I know, right? Those aren't words I'm used to saying. Before I get calls to turn in my pinko leftist card, let me specify that I wasn't agreeing with their entire policy stance on the issue at hand (Affirmative Action) but I thought aspects of their approach—considering socioeconomic background as a factor in equalizing admissions instead of race—were unusually thoughtful and made sense. So let's do a thought experiment. Let's assume affirmative action is really important to me. It's important to me like abortion, LGBT rights, or taxes are important to some voters—a make-or-break issue. Do I support Bush in the 2004 election? Since affirmative action isn't that important to me as a voter, it's not a dilemma I have to confront. I oppose Bush on so many more significant grounds that the off-chance that my thinking aligned with his on one is pretty irrelevant.

But for some people, this becomes an extremely relevant dilemma. They are forced to make political friends out of political enemies, enemies out of friends, and to sort out the mess that that can create practically. One of the best historical examples of this kind of behavior is the women's suffrage movement pandering to racists by excluding black women from marches and protests. These awkward little collisions of interest are fascinating to watch play out in contemporary politics. Here are some examples.

#1—Wisconsin is a stew of interests, what with hippie haven Madison and union refuge Milwaukee butting heads with rural-family-values everywhere else. Typically, it's the state that gave the nation both Bob LaFollette and Joe McCarthy. We are currently represented by one of the most progressive senators out there, Russ Feingold, but he's got an almost-perfect record in opposing gun control. It's along the "guns" line that a pretty absurd political hot button came up a few years ago. The DNR introduced introduced a bill in the state legislature that would make it legal to hunt cats. Yes, that means exactly what you think it means. If Mittens doesn't have a collar on, she's fair game (literally).

Now this little bill's strange bedfellows stemmed mostly from the fact that the environmental lobby was behind the bill. Feral cats killed off local birds, making them a nuisance for conservation efforts. The gun lobby was way behind it, because it meant they got to shoot stuff more often, and farmers were fans, because they considered feral cats a pest. That meant that the environmental lobby was against the animal rights fans. (As it worked out, legislators didn't want to go on the record as being pro-kitten-hunting, so the bill didn't pass.)

#2—Then there's this story. The upshot is that assholes want first amendment protection for their assholery, and the ACLU is helping them out. Now the ACLU tends to be pretty anti-homophobia, but they also like to protect your right, in certain circumstances to be an asshole. They're also big fans of second-amendment rights ("you mean I can have a gun, but I can't use it to shoot the queers?"). In any event, they're defending a church's right to picket military funerals—the church thinks deaths in Iraq are due to our tolerance of gays. So apparently you get to carry a sign at someone's funeral that says "thank God for dead soldiers." (But seriously, the left hates the troops).

So what are the implications of that kind of odd behavior? Well, an upside is that it makes people cross partisan boundaries and cooperate on issues that matter to them, and may create some kind of horse trading and compromise that is probably good for politics. People stop disagreeing with each other as a knee-jerk reaction and start actually considering their positions carefully. In theory, at least.

The downside is that it makes life awfully confusing for those of us who like to dedicate our time, money, or other resources to organizations that usually do really nice things, but don't want that money to go to protect, say, homophobic speech (I reluctantly think you can be a homophobic asshole whenever you want, but probably not at someone's funeral, and I'm certainly not going to give money to perpetuate it).

What about y'all? Have you encountered any interesting cases of strange bedfellows in your political life? How did you traverse that political space?


Anonymous said...

I am totally opposed to almost everything Fred Phelps does. However, his decision to picket military funerals, however distasteful, should fall, in my view, under the protective umbrella of first amendment law.

A funeral, or at least a funeral procession, is a public display of grief. Phelps's protests are public displays of approval (of "God's Will," and the death of the soldier, that is). At the funerals Phelps protests, two groups are expressing differing ideas. The fact that one group's set of ideas is odious and upsetting to the other group is irrelevant; the first amendment specifically protects public assembly, even when the message is detestable.

I am not willing to fund Phelps's efforts, but I am totally willing to fund his (and my) right to publicly air unpopular ideas.

Anonymous said...

By the way, hi Will. It's David. I wrote the last post and I have something to add.

Namely (please bear in mind that this is tangential and I am not trying to suggest that you are advocating for what I'm whining about):

I am sick of the left trying to outlaw homophobic and racist speech. A homophobic or racist idea is still an idea, and still should be protected speech.

By no means am I saying that burning crosses or threatening "fags" with death should be legal, but if some dumbass thinks that Scandinavians are inherently inferior to the Irish, or some bullshit like that, I think that he (or she, though I doubt many women would object to the masculine pronoun in this instance) should be able to express his (or her) shitty crackpot ideas.

There is little to be gained from outlawing hateful speech. Laws of these sorts are unconstitutional in the US (thank rationality) and where they can be enforced legally, they have the effect of reinforcing undeserved feelings of victimization in homophobes and racists. Even if this were the case, however, outlawing ideas is an idea as shitty as it is (generally speaking) ineffectual. To eradicate homophobia or racism by force, we would have to take measures the side effects of which would be far worse than the problems of racism and homophobia, horrible as they are.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Harrison said...

Why is it that you liberals seem physically incapable of understanding that "open mind" and "free speech" don't mean "turn a blind eye all activities"?! One of the distinguishing characteristics in which traditional American culture prides itself, is agreeing to outlaw certain outrageous activities which qualify as abuse of the 1st amendment. Activities like picketing a funeral of a federally-funded soldier dying to protect you. Liberals like to call these activities "free expression", while sensible Americans (as well as the Supreme Court) rightly refuse to tolerate it. State legislatures have outlawed such picketing, yet here we are dealing with arguing in favor of an unrealistic position SIMPLY FOR THE PURPOSE OF ARGUING. Good morning.

Will said...

Hello, Harrison.

1. You are correct that there are times in which limitations of free speech are justified and valuable. For example, I have excised the parts of your comment that constitute trolling. As a favor, because I know you, I've left in the rest.

2. Attacking someone's person from the position of anonymity is the worst kind of intellectual dishonesty. (Of course, given your politics, you are hardly a stranger to that). Given that you are (currently) the most prolific commenter on this blog —I think including me—you should probably find a nickname and use it. I've made a suggestion.

3. I'll let David defend his post if he wants, because I don't completely agree with him, but it's interesting to point out that David is actually arguing against the left. Indeed, limiting free speech is a favorite tool of the radical left and the reactionary right. I understand your desire to frame politics entirely in terms of your political stance—oh wait, no I don't, because neoconservatism is younger than you are—but every non-neoconservative isn't a liberal. In fact, libertarians, those most likely to be sympathetic to David's argument, have typically voted republican.

Harrison said...

Ouch. I feel like I've just been disciplined by Keith Olbermann. I suppose my rant deletion was acceptable, only because I seem to be physically addicted to the caps lock key. I shall assume this sobriquet for the time being. I've made it just for you, because I previously didn't (and still don't) trust Google enough to bother registering. Don't make me force you to approve comments before posting, it will kill the human spirit. Have a nice break; as you will have large amounts of time on your hands, I hope to visit your blog for dessert many a nights.

David said...

Let's start at the beginning:

"Why is it that you liberals seem physically incapable of understanding that 'open mind' and 'free speech' don't mean 'turn a blind eye all activities'?!"

Please proofread what you write. Your response is full of mistakes.

English is flawed in that it represents "to seem" as an active verb. In Latin, "to seem" is "videri," a passive verb, which makes much more sense. Nothing seems like anything on its own; observation is necessary to appearance. In other words, the reason you think I'm "physically incapable" of discriminating between protected and unprotected speech lies in your powers of observation and analysis, not in my actions.

"One of the distinguishing characteristics in which traditional American culture prides itself, is agreeing to outlaw certain outrageous activities which qualify as abuse of the 1st amendment."

I want you to read this sentence just for syntax and say (aloud) to yourself, "I wrote that."

Two points:
1. What is "traditional American culture," and why should I give a shit about what it has to say about anything?
2. How does something qualify as an abuse of the first amendment? You give no guidelines, so I'm tempted to think you're arguing that the government should censor views on basis of how maddening you and your "traditional American culture" find them.

"Activities like picketing a funeral of a federally-funded soldier dying to protect you."

First off, what does federal funding have to do with anything? Would you disapprove of someone, having joined the armed forces, paying for his or her own training and supplies?

Secondly, I think Fred Phelps is heinous, but what you're suggesting amounts to government-enforced military patriotism, which is both a waste of resources and an infringement on a constitutionally guaranteed right (peaceably to assemble).

Censorship based on how some segment of society feels about the views expressed is not advisable. Some gay rights advocates, as I noted above, would like to outlaw homophobic speech because it can be psychologically damaging and helps perpetuate harmful cultural biases against gay people. I'm not expecting you to accept this as legitimate, and so much the better because it is at least as reasonable as banning protests at military funerals. The military has not been a object of entrenched systemic persecution of the sort that the LGBTQ has endured.

"Liberals like to call these activities 'free expression[....]'"

We call them other things as well. You don't have to censor everything you hate. Axing first amendment rights to stop obnoxious, hateful protests is like using napalm to get rid of head lice.

"[...]while sensible Americans (as well as the Supreme Court) rightly refuse to tolerate it."

I'd love for you to get me that ruling. I find it unlikely that the 8th circuit would have issued an injunction suspending enforcement of Missouri's military funeral picketing law if there were a clear precedent. I could be wrong. Just figgering.

"yet here we are dealing with arguing in favor of an unrealistic position SIMPLY FOR THE PURPOSE OF ARGUING."

Whine whine whine. If you don't want to argue, maybe you should shut up. If you want to argue, don't complain about it.

I fail to see what's "unrealistic" about my position. In this modern, topsy-turvy world, is supporting free speech "unrealistic?" What does that even mean? My position is a model of how I would like things to be, not of how they actually are. How can it be unrealistic? In any case, if you're a neocon, you certainly have some "unrealistic" positions, by your standards, insofar as I can deduce them. Against abortion? Unrealistic. Better yet, dislike Islamic extremism? Totally unrealistic.