Saturday, July 28, 2012

Saturday Night Live Music: "King of the Road/Let's Get Married"

Melissa and I saw the Proclaimers, a kind of fantastic folk-punk-gospel duo, live in a tiny club in Salt Lake City, back in 1994, when they were touring the U.S. in support for their then-new album, Hit the Highway. I've followed their career, and been hoping to see them again, ever since. A great, great, soulful and powerful show--certainly equal to what they put on here.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Saturday Night Live Music: "Under Pressure"

There are very few huge, "event" concerts that I genuinely wish I could attend or could have attended...but this tribute to the late Freddie Mercury twenty years ago really makes we wish I could have found myself in London in 1992. For this performance, in particular. "Under Pressure" is such a brilliant pop song in part because David Bowie and Mercury were both top-flight male pop vocalists...and to put the incomparable Bowie along with Annie Lennox, who is one of the finest female pop singers of the whole recording era, singing this song...well, it's just incredible fun.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Why I Think I Was Wrong About Proposition 8 and Same-Sex Marriage

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

The only time I have had the opportunity to actually vote on--as opposed to pontificate about--same-sex marriage was in 2004 when I lived in Arkansas, when an amendment to the state constitution forbidding the legal recognition of anything besides a union of one man and one woman as a marriage was on the ballot. I voted in favor of it. In 2008, though I wasn't living in California, Proposition 8--the ballot initiative to re-establish what was, at the time, the exclusively heterosexual definition of marriage in that state--was obviously something just about every informed American Mormon, due to our church's heavy involvement in its passage, had an opinion on. My opinion, which was published as part of a roundtable in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, was that I would have, if I'd lived in California, reluctantly voted in support of the referendum. I now think both my vote on same-sex marriage in Arkansas, and the arguments I laid out regarding Proposition 8, were wrong.

Big deal is the correct reaction, I suppose. Hasn't everyone changed their mind about same-sex marriage by now? President Obama has evolved (said yes, then no, then yes, to be specific). David Blankenhorn, one of the most articulate defenders of traditional marriage, has given up the fight. Noah Millman, the blogger whose arguments against same-sex marriage influenced my thinking nearly a decade ago more than any others, has long since changed his mind. When even Wendell Berry, one of the most revered defenders of localism and traditionalism in America today, says he has no real problem with gay marriage, who am I to be a holdout? (Oh, and by the way, to all those conservatives who are perplexed by Berry's opinion on the matter--hasn't it always been obvious that Berry embraces tradition and rejects technological progress not because of some affection for the "natural order" of things, but because doing so--and using populist government programs as appropriate to accomplish such--conserves the power of people to build local communities which are healthy and decent...kind of in the way the right sort of marriage can?) But since I'm actually on record about some of this stuff, I figured I needed to say something publicly about my own evolution.

There are many causes for changing my mind, some of which are included in much of the thinking included in the arguments and statements I've linked to above. But the bottom-line reason for my change is really a consequence of how I formulated my argument against same-sex marriage in the first place. I've never been a crusader on the topic; it was, rather, as I wrote before, something I simply "nodded my head in regards to." It made sense to me to defend traditional marriage, because it made sense to see the state as an important player in maintaining certain lines in the sand regarding how men and women went about their community-building, sexual-identity-expressing, procreative work. It made sense to me to argue that civilization--our specific moment in the history of Western civilization, if you want to get particular--depends at least in part on certain norms, and the stronger of those norms, however much of a historical or socio-economic construct they may be, draw upon and thus themselves contribute to the preservation of certain naturally grounded tendencies, tendencies which harness potentially harmful and exploitive aspects of human socializing (undisciplined and irresponsible sexuality being one such) and turn them into productive, virtuous contributions (though intact families rearing children, the close civil relationship between religious belief and local lifestyles, and more). Marriage in this tradition-strengthened, locality-building, civil-religion-endorsing, socially productive sense had clearly already been dealt a near-unrecoverable blow in America by the advent of no-fault divorce and the sexual revolution, but that was no reason not to continue to fight to prevent its continued degeneration. And so, the fight in favor against same-sex marriage--same-sex relations being non-procreative, non-religiously-endorsed, non-traditional, and perhaps even arguably non-natural ones--is a fight worth supporting, with my vote.

That's what I thought then; it's not what I think now. Now, I think the above reasoning falls apart at a few key points: at the point where homosexual relations were assumed to be non-compatible with building enduring communities, the point where I stipulated the need for America's civil religion to be able to contribute to said communities through religious ordinances like marriage, etc. But that's not the real reason for changing my mind. The real reason is that the above abstract, head-nodding, I-have-no-personal-stake-in-this-so-it-remains-just-intellectual-bit-of-communitarian-cultural-theorizing-to-me arguments ran into reality. One of those realities was the It Gets Better campaign (which even made it to BYU, can you believe it?), and my subsequently reconnecting with an old friend of mine. The other realities were my daughters.

I should note that if, perhaps, I had been a crusader, fired up by orthodox Catholic commitments to natural law (or, less admiringly, by a deep homophobic revulsion to the idea that men might be sexually attracted to men, or women to women), then I could have overcome those encounters with reality; after all, many decent, intelligent, moral people continue along with their increasingly marginalized (though still politically viable!) opposition to same-sex marriage. More relevantly to my own religious tradition, if I had a deep conviction that my church's Proclamation on the Family was a revelation from God, then opposing same-sex marriage would continue to make good politico-theological sense; after all, if God in His goodness makes all His children eternally male or female, with pre-ordained and naturally validated sexual roles, then legitimating same-sex marriages might well be a matter of legitimating a mortal possibility which could only result in deep spiritual confusion and harm. (There has been, to be fair, a fair amount of elaboration on what the Proclamation truly implies for the Mormon faithful, as more has been learned about the whole range of dynamics involved in realizing for oneself and/or purposefully articulating a sexual identity, and no doubt such articulation will continue--even to the point of some acknowledgment that accepting the idea of the eternity of gender doesn't obviously have to mandate heterosexuality exclusively.) But fortunately for myself in this matter, as I've long kind of felt that much--not all, but much--of what some Mormons like to claim regarding divine embodiment, the sociality of eternally gendered beings, and endless procreative expansion, was both scripturally unwarranted and kind of dumb, not taking the (non-canonized!) Proclamation's theological claims, and all the arguments about them, particularly seriously has been easy for me. So that means there really wasn't a whole lot besides some persuasive but impersonal ideological convictions to get in way of the reality of what my girls--now aged 15, 12, 8, and 6, and none of them gay so far as I can tell--taught me.

This is what they taught me: that they are my equals insofar as their gender is concerned, and that I simply can't be part of an argument which assumes otherwise. (Can I be part of a community or polity or organization which assumes otherwise? Of course, because every human grouping is going to be a mix of causes and practices, and you identity with or reject its different parts for various reasons and in historically contextual ways--a church or association usually can't be, and shouldn't be, reduced to a single argument or cause. A vote on a referendum on same-sex marriage, however...that's something else.) What does gender equality have to do with same-sex marriage? There are very likely strong arguments against it which may get around the issue entirely...but they weren't my arguments, the ones which I read in First Things magazine more than a decade ago and found persuasive. Those arguments had everything to do with gender roles; indeed, everything I wrote up two paragraphs above here did as well, regarding procreation and sexual exploitation and more. Specifically, they have to do with the idea that male-female complementarity has to be understood as the normative basis for a civilized society. Of course, what are the specifics of that complementarity? Whatever they may be, they aren't characterized by equality. And equality...well, that's important to me, and not just for the abstract good of it: I want it for my daughters' sake as well.

This was all crystallized for me by the comments of the very intelligent, very decent same-sex marriage opponent Francis Beckwith, when he denied that opposing same-sex marriage was the same as opposing interracial marriage, because racial identity is, he asserts, obviously irrelevant to the deeper, obviously natural, male-female identity:

The fact that a man and a woman from different races were biologically and metaphysically capable of marrying each other, building families, and living among the general population is precisely why the race purists wanted to forbid such unions by the force of law. And because this view of marriage and its gender-complementary nature was firmly in place and the only understanding found in common law, the Supreme Court in Loving knew that racial identity was not relevant to what marriage requires of its two opposite-gender members. By injecting race into the equation, anti-miscegenation supporters were very much like contemporary same-sex marriage proponents, for in both cases they introduced a criterion other than male-female complementarity in order to promote the goals of a utopian social movement: race purity or sexual egalitarianism. 

This struck me hard when I read it: it meant that, for me at least, the full logic of my own head-nodding support of traditional marriage meant accepting sexual inegalitarianism. And how could I sign on to an argument which draws its logical force from an assumption which I could only see as potentially harming my daughters in the long run? I couldn't.

Yes, I can imagine, and can even find slightly persuasive, arguments which assert that same-sex marriage buys into an individualization of sexual identity, disconnected from larger wholes like families, and thus can only further contribute to a culture which already plays into male sexual independence and irresponsibility, which is almost invariably to the detriment of women. God knows I have see almost nothing good whatsoever in the world of hook-ups, out-of-wedlock births, child-abandonment, and male infantilization which I see around me, even here on my fairly conservative and religious college campus. But then the Marxist in me speaks up: Really? It's the individualization of sexual identity which has played the primarily role in the breakdown of effective, sexual-responsibility teaching norms? It's the fault of women entering the workforce and asking for a little sexual parity, and the legal and technological tools they made used of to achieve it, which has given us family breakdown and the feminization of poverty? You don't think it might also have just a little bit to do with, you know...JOBS?

My oldest daughter will probably have one more year at home, and then she'll be heading out into the world. She appears to take her religion--our family religion--seriously. She also appears to like boys. And most importantly, she has confidence and ambition and some real intelligence leading her on. When I look at what surrounds her, and the sexual snares and family dysfunction that she already knows plenty about through her friends, I see, for certain, the negative consequences of the Sexual Revolution. But I also see the ravages of globalization and financial capitalism, which have eviscerated the socio-economic basis for the post-Industrial Revolution family unit (a family unit that was, for certain, itself a historical construct, but for good or ill it was a workable one, one which carried us through most of the 19th and 20th centuries in good shape), erected in its place a--in my opinion--deeply condescending and class-reinforcing and service-oriented meritocracy, and then provided plenty of porn and computer games for all the men (and women...but mostly men) who have found themselves unable to climb that ever-shifting and frankly corrupt ladder. (Paging Hanna Rosin--or maybe Ray Bradbury--here.) Opposing same-sex marriage will not only not do anything to address this situation; it will--again, in the case of the arguments I myself at one time found persuasive--rather oblige me to buy into a ideology of marriage and female happiness that would prevent me from preparing my daughters for this unfortunate world as equals. I can't do that. And with that realization, the realization that I cannot wink at sexual ability to articulate a case against same-sex marriage disappeared. Just like that.

Does this end all the arguments? Of course not. My own church has shifted their arguments; now, the Mormon leadership is talking less and less about orientation and nature (though the old guard remains), and more and more about preserving religious liberty, the ability of religious communities to engage in their own rituals and practices and to teach their own doctrines publicly without facing legal penalties. I care a great deal about the freedom of religious communities to define and handle their own affairs, not just because I take my (and others') religious faith seriously, but also because I believe that not interfering with what religious organizations can bring to the civic table is the best way to maximize the good those organizations can do. Hence, my frustration with President Obama's HHS mandate...and if it were the case that similar mandates were at all likely, in the wake of state decisions to legalize same-sex marriage, that would affect the ability of my church to conduct weddings and teach sexual morality as they see fit, then my opposition to it would probably be undiminished. But, despite the paranoid bell-clanging of some, there simply aren't any such mandates anywhere on the horizon. Might there someday be? Of course. But I'm not willing to personally support a logic that requires I accept an unacceptable premise, simply for the sake of what might be. That's not a good way to approach my responsibilities as a citizen...responsibilities I have to our civilization, to be sure, but also, and more immediately, to a gay friend who is also an American citizen, and most immediately to my girls, who are American citizens too. Give me an argument against same-sex marriage that has nothing whatsoever to do with presuming the normativity of a kind of sexual inequality, or makes a reasonable and believable case that the self-defined teachings and operations of churches and their sponsoring institutions are going to be imminently threatened by it, and then maybe I'll change my mind back. But I don't see that happening. Apparently, I'm with a slowly emerging majority in thinking that way. Better late than never, I guess.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Saturday Night Live Music: "Right Where I Belong/Ride to Heaven"

To continue with the Texas theme from last week--my friend Scott (the same fellow who I went to the Joe Ely concert in Fort Worth with) introduced me to the music of Ely, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, aka The Flatlanders--as well as the incomparably weird song-writing of their fellow Texan Terry Allen--back in the late 1990s. Then, sometime in early 2001 (presumably on this very same tour shown here; I can remember Robbie Gjersoe handling a lot of the fancy fretwork), they came to the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA, and Melissa and I caught the show, thanks to tickets which--again!--Scott bought for us. (He's really been my musical patron over the years.) It was a fabulous show, and while I'm not sure we're heard "Right Where I Belong" that night, I know we heard--and cheered our hearts out--for the the delightfully blasphemous Allen song which comes right after it.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Saturday Night Live Music: "Not Fade Away"

This one I was actually present for: just over three years ago, July 3rd, 2009, Joe Ely and his tight, fabulous band (including Bobby Keys!), in Fort Worth, Texas, with my old friend Scott. We were on the other side of the stage from whomever was holding the camera. Believe me, as bluesy and rocking as this sounds, in front of that stage it was even better.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Dude, I Just Won the Internet for the Whole Weekend

Hey, all my fellow Generation-X-Sid-and-Marty-Krofft-fans--you remember this show, right?

Of course you do; in third grade I wanted nothing more than an Electro-Com of my own, and so did you. But what I want now is an answer: why the hell is Aaron Sorkin pumping out reruns like The Newsroom when he could be reviving something awesome like this?

And more!

I could see FX or Showtime doing so much with a show like this.

Health Care and the Way We Play-Act at Democracy

[Cross-posted to Political Context]

So, it's been more than a week since the Supreme Court, against my expectations, upheld the Affordable Care Act by issuing a 5-4 decision in NFIB v. Sebelius. A couple of commenters, both before I left town for the week in which the decision ended up being handed down, as well as in the immediate wake of the ruling, wanted to know if I'd changed my mind: if I didn't feel a need to rethink what I said about the imperialism of our highest court, and the way it contributed to, in my mind, our present moment, a moment in which "all the institutionalized practices and routines of democratic government seem dubious or even irrelevant to the supposed ability of the people to organize themselves and take responsibility away from those whose wealth, position, or power allow them to easily grab it in the first place." Obviously, my prediction was completely wrong: the individual insurance mandate (which has now, through the magical power of clever legal writing, received constitutional blessing as a tax) passed muster, while the Medicaid expansion didn't. But the fact that I'm happy with the decision hardly puts an end to my worries; if anything, the news about the conflicted, impervious way in which Chief Justice John Roberts sailed solo through the whole decision-writing process, taking first one way and then the next, I think can be taken as evidence for my point.

What makes this especially galling--to me, anyway--is that more than a few prominent conservatives have discerned in Roberts's decision some sort of profound, John-Marhsall-esque defense of judicial restraint and democratic empowerment. George F. Will wrote that Roberts, by rebaptizing the Affordable Care Act as something other than what it's defenders presented it as, helped to revivify the salutary tradition of "viewing congressional actions with a skeptical constitutional squint." Ross Douthat praised Roberts for "basically allowed the existing debate to continue, and...[not] declaring either side’s fundamental convictions out of constitutional bounds." Andrew Sullivan called Roberts another Edmund Burke for being "unwilling to trash its reputation by embroiling it in a deep and bitter partisan grudge-match in the middle of a presidential campaign." Fine, wonderful--Roberts is a careful guy, and no doubt had any number of legal and political, as well as institutional and perhaps even strategic concerns in mind as he developed his opinion about the ACA. (Scott Lemieux thoughtfully and succinctly lays out these factors, partly in response to Mark Tushnet's three-part analysis of Roberts's opinion.) But from where I sit, I wonder what that is supposed to add up to. An unelected individual has taken it upon himself to craft a decision in the midst of many countervailing pressures that prevented the (I think, given the obvious precedent in support of the commerce-clause reading of the individual mandate, rather arbitrary) constitutional squashing of a law that had been passed through regular democratic procedures, in the face of the coordinated opposition of a political party and ideological movement that increasing acts, for better or worse, according to rules and norms quite different (some of them downright "goofy", as no less a conservative than Richard Posner has labeled them) than anything that our constitutional republic had previously adapted itself to over the years. This is supposed to make us happy? No, this is an exception which proves a rule; this is a lucky success which reveals how deep the democratic dysfunction and failure.

I have sitting on my desk a copy of Sanford Levinson's new book Framed: America's 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance, in which he looks at both our federal and the state constitutions, and points out confusions, inconsistencies, and hold-overs from lost political eras which prevent our communities--local, state, as well as national--from being able to effectively govern themselves. He is much more friendly to the idea of judicial review than I am (I still consider Jeremy Waldron's criticisms of it as a constitutional doctrine, and his recommendations of limitations to be put upon it, to be essentially unchallenged), but even he recognizes that the degree of anti-majoritarianism which the court is set up to exercise--especially, I would add, when one throws into the mix the polarization of party-organized political and ideological positions which we are presently seeing in the United States--may well be indefensibly undemocratic. He points, as contrasting examples, to the state supreme courts of North Dakota and Nebraska, which cannot declare legislation to be unconstitutional with supermajorities of the courts agreeing to do so (four out of five in the case of North Dakota, five our of seven in the case of Nebraska); he also reflects upon a long-gone Progressive effort in Ohio to prevent the courts from exercising judicial review over legitimate democratic legislation except in cases of a unanimous vote (Framed [Oxford, 2012], 284-285). I don't put those suggestions out there as solutions to the frustrating reality that we--those of us who supported, despite all our reservations, the Affordable Care Act--are being asked to be grateful that an appointed judge has taken it upon himself to not drop a two-ton constitutional hammer on years of combative legislative struggle, but they do, at least, help me recognize that I'm not alone in feeling somewhat churlish when I'm expected to celebrate the outcome.

In a peaceful, wealthy, modern democratic society like our own, there is probably no more obvious question which pertains to the common good of the whole community than how one allocates (and pays for) the provision of health care. (Michael Walzer made this point nearly 30 years ago.) I don't think a system that makes the national government a partner with corporate entities like insurance companies is the best way to go about doing this (and most Americans agree). But as the political parties we had available to us weren't going to get behind single-payer (and perhaps appropriately so, due to the size and diversity of our population--though Canada, as always, provides an instructive counter-example), a complicated system of mandates, exchanges, limits, and subsidies seemed, ultimately, the only workable way to propose a solution to the demands of the American people that health care costs be controlled and no one be allowed to die outside of emergency rooms for lack of insurance coverage. It is admittedly rather easy for critics of democracy to mock these kinds of demands as unrealistic or uninformed; there's plenty of evidence that most Americans not only know next to nothing about the Affordable Care Act, but they know next to nothing about the whole legal argument over it. In the midst of such an uneducated populace, surely we ought to trust in various elites to make decisions for the masses, yes? I for one don't think so--for reasons that Walzer laid out decades ago: that so long as no serious "political decision" (meaning democratic legislation) is made to limit the dominant role of free enterprise in our intellectual constructions and justifications of our systems of medical care--even though "communal provision already encroaches upon the free market" (think Veterans Administration hospitals, think Medicare--then it will remain the case that "individuals will be cared for in proportion to their ability to pay and not to their need for care" (Spheres of Justice [Basic Books, 1983], 88-89). Democracy and the legislation it results may not appear efficient or natural or rational by market/property/rights/stuff-shaped standards (said standards being historically arbitrary and often incoherent anyway), but it really is one of the indispensable tools for maintaining a community that holds to some basic principle of equality. I'll happily grant that the communitarian and majoritarian concomitants of the construction of genuine democratic self-government are often illiberal and invasive in their own un-equalizaing ways, and hence courts outside the system of direct democratic accountability have their place...but the idea that we are expected to appreciatively applaud when unknowable circumstances lead a random judge to actually (munificently!) allow democratic efforts to structure the communal provision of medicare care to go forward? No thank you.

In my previous post, I made mention of James Fallows's belief the Supreme Court's impending decision on the Affordable Care Act had marked similarities to what, were it happening in other, less developed countries, we'd probably characterize as a "coup." A friend of mine pointed me towards Will Wilkinson's mockery of that point, suggesting along with him that my complaints were basically that I had policy disagreements with the government (or the Supreme Court), rather than frustrations over "the slow-motion demise of American democracy." All I can say about that, now that the ACA has survived (until November and Romney's election and the possible Republican take-over of the Senate, at least), is that the issue for me was never (or at least never entirely) disagreements about the reasoning and arguments used in the defenses or attacks before the Supreme Court over how one ought to be allowed to write laws provide for affordable medical care to the American is was always primarily that this--the very legitimacy of what the Obama administration managed to push through Congress in early 2010--was made into a juridical (that is, an elite, a constitutional, an "expert") issue in the first place. Good for you, John Roberts: you found a way to allow us to continue (on this issue anyway, maybe) to govern ourselves. Forgive me for not cheering to loudly. After all, we have enough problems already with a corrupt party system, a dysfunctional Senate, and a political culture mostly blind to the structuring power of money in the election process. All you really did was provide the last word (just for now, of course) in a process that distracted us from all that for months. Hurrah.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Andy Griffith and the Two Sides of American Democracy

Andy Griffith died this morning. He was a fine actor, a man who came out of an era and with an approach--a subtly (or not no subtly) stylized kind of faux-authenticity; think Marlon Brando or James Dean--that is, for better or worse, mostly absent from film and television performers today. The fact that he was from the backwoods of North Carolina--and milked his intuitive knowledge of how the rural poor are presumed to think, speak, and act by metropolitan elites throughout his career--didn't hurt him either. Through television and film, he managed to etch character moments which, frankly, absolutely nailed both sides of American democracy as it moved out of 19th-century presumptions and into the big corporate, big media, big government world of the 20th-century. On the one hand, there is the presumption that American citizens will be responsible, and will resist the temptation to abuse the rules, when they wield the democratic power to govern themselves:

And on the other hand, there is sinking realization that, often enough, American citizens will rapidly run into the hands of anyone who uses the power of the media, the economy, or the government to promise them entertainment, distraction, and profit, just so long as it means they don't have to think for themselves:

RIP, Andy. Wish I could believe that we saw more of the former around us than the latter.