Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Bush, This is Beneath You

At the end of a speech recently supporting his immigration compromise, President Bush said this:

Those determined to find fault with this [immigration] bill will always be able to look at a narrow slice of it and find something they don't like. If you want to kill the bill, if you don't want to do what's right for America, you can pick one little aspect out of it, you can use it to frighten people.
One phrase there strikes me: "if you don't want to do what's right for America". It sounds to me like Bush is saying, "people who disagree with me on this have some other priority than the good of America". And that really bothers me.

We need to be able to disagree with people without attacking their motives. A President, of all people, should be able to do this well.

From Bush in particular this bothers me because, especially back in 2000, I was struck by his respectfulness toward his political opponents. That was one of the strongest factors influencing my desire to support his candidacy. He had a track record of working with political opponents, and he refused to attack the motives of his opponents. I can't find the quote online, but I remember him saying that Democrats and Republicans both had the same goals and desires for our country, but just disagreed about the methods of getting there.

Now, to his credit, this is a compromise bill that he has helped put together with both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. So, from that perspective, he is continuing to fulfill that impression that I had of him in the beginning.

But, his language toward opponents is getting more and more strident, it seems, and I find it highly disappointing.


(Thanks to Volokh Conspiracy for directing me to this information)

The Rise of the Bottom Fifth

The WA Post had another good article. This time about the success fo welfare reform enacted under the GOP congress when Clinton was in office.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Selective Reduction

Liz Mundy of the Washington Post recently wrote one of the most honest and unbiased portrayals of abortion I've ever read. She writes about abortion in the context of assistive reproductive technologies like IVF and makes it no secret that she is in favor of such technologies. Her views on abortion in this context are complex. She makes it no secret that she is uncomfortable with some aspects of selective reduction (e.g., gender selection), but at the same time she says to another couple experiencing doubt about their past decision, "clearly, you made the best, most responsible choice that you could."

I would highly recommend reading the entire article and follow-on Q&A forum.
If these don't work try searching for "selective reduction" on the washington post website and don't forget if you're in a rush and they ask for a username/password.

Most interesting aspects of the article for me.
1) The role of gender selection in many of the abortions
2) The role of apparent coercion in one of the stories. This was especially poignant to me given the role of parental coercion in the abortion of someone I know.
3) The discomfort of many radically pro-abortion people when faced with this procedure in their own lives vs. abortion in the case of unwanted pregancies.
4) The potential psychological side effects when it comes to bonding with the remaining 'chosen' children
5) The denial by the nurse assisting the doctor that what they were doing was really an abortion and her insistence that she could never assist at real abortions.
6) The reactions of one lady in particular when she realized the reality of fetal development. I'll post a bit of it here as a teaser.

"Oh, my God, I can really see it!" the patient cried. "Oh, my God! I can see the fingers!"

"Okay!" she said, abruptly, gesturing for the screen to be turned away. She began sobbing. There were no tissues in the room, so her husband gave her a paper towel, which she crumpled to her face. The patient spent the rest of the procedure with her hospital gown over her face, so she would not see any more of what was happening.

Even though she had this reaction, she went through with the real procedure the next day.

Like I said earlier, it is a fascinating and amazingly honest look at selective reduction from a big IVF proponent.


Monday, May 14, 2007

Pathology and Eugenics

In following tangents related to purple_kangaroo's Defining Marriage thread, I came across the article: "Creationism and the problem of homosexual behaviour by Dr Jerry Bergman", wherein "The evolutionist view of the origin of homosexuality in contrast to the creationist explanation is reviewed." It provides a scientific argument for a pathological view of homosexuality.

Of course, "pathology" indicates a disease to be remedied and implicitly makes a moral judgement about the condition, which others may contest. For example, since 1973, the American Psychiatric Association no longer classifies homosexuality as a psychopathology ("Facts About Homosexuality and Mental Health"), though apparently, there is still a defiant minority.

But more generally, is the moral judgement of any pathology or disease warranted? Or is it merely relative to a person's subjective response to a condition?

For example, in 2002, one deaf couple intentionally 'chose' to have a deaf baby. The lesbian couple, "both in their 30s, are part of a growing movement in the US which sees deafness as a cultural identity, not as a disability. Many oppose surgery to correct deafness."

In "Deaf lesbians, 'designer disability,' and the future of medicine", Julian Savulescu discusses some pertinent arguments and concludes that preventing such reproductive choices is tantamount to the Nazi eugenic program and that a "child is harmed by being selected to exist only if his or her life is so bad it is not worth living".

But how do we determine whether a life is "worth living"? Treatment of a "disease" seems rightfully ground in our individual freedoms, but making this decision for a baby disturbs me. Yet it does seem right to me that parents should be the ultimate caretakers of their child, and not doctors or society.

On the other hand, we clearly would not permit a more developed baby (or fetus?) to be intentionally disabled in order for its parents to form the child they desire. Incest has likewise been forbidden out of concern for creating disabled children.

Do such parental decisions sufficiently impact society for the government to intervene? Can this be compared to, for example, a parent's decision not to have their child vaccinated?


Friday, May 04, 2007

Vocabulary Impacts Perception

I've long been intrigued by the power that words have over thoughts. The more words we know (and know well), the better we are able to think. Without words, I am convinced, we are not able to think coherently. That's the way our brains seem to be wired.

Today I saw an interesting study (referenced on the Volokh Conspiracy blog). It seems that in Russian, they have one extra primary color. Just as English has "red" and "pink", Russian has "blue" and "light-blue" as distinct and separate colors. Both colors are lumped under the same word category in English... both are considered "blue", even if the particular shades have different names.

In the study, English speakers and Russian speakers were shown three colored squares. Two squares had the same shade of blue, one had a different shade. Russian speakers were consistently better able to determine which square was different when the shades were in the separate vocabulary categories of "blue" and "light-blue". English speakers had consistent perceptions.

In other words... the way simple objects are attached to words (especially in our childhood, I'd imagine) strongly affects our ability to perceive and discriminate those objects throughout life.

I find that fascinating.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

Hate Crimes Legislation

The House of Representatives voted today to pass the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007. The Senate is soon likely to pass the bill as well. The president, on the other hand, is suggesting a possible veto.

Conservative organizations such as Focus on the Family Action are up in arms about the bill. Here's a quote from their call to petition Congress to reject the bill:

Gary Schneeberger, senior media director of government and public policy at Focus on the Family Action, said such “a two-tiered justice system” could erode freedom of speech – and ultimately lead to pastors being arrested “for 'inciting violence' simply for saying what the Bible says about homosexuality."
Liberal organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign are thrilled about the bill. Here's a quote from their article lauding the bill's passage:

"This is a historic day that moves all Americans closer to safety from the scourge of hate violence," said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese. “Today, legislators sided with the 73 percent of the American people who support the expansion of hate crimes laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Basically, the bill accomplishes three things:
  • It empowers the federal government to provide special financial assistance to local law enforcement to prosecute "hate crimes".
  • It empowers the federal government to directly prosecute hate crimes, regardless of when or where or how they were carried out (previous laws restricted jurisdiction to areas where the federal government would have criminal jurisidiction anyway; this law makes a special exception for any "hate crime", allowing the federal government to prosecute regardless.)
  • It expands the definition of "hate crime" to include sexual orientation and "disability" (whatever that means specifically... it isn't defined).

The Focus on the Family Action statement seems ridiculous to me. We've had federal and state "hate crimes" legislation on the books for years, and they haven't proven to be any threat to free speech. Various white supremacist groups are still allowed to exist, and to put out their racist literature, without being arrested for "thought crimes". I see no reason why this should start anything different.

This bill, in itself, clearly retains free speech protections. The bill only comes into play when there is a violent crime. At that point, the federal justice department can determine (in connection with local law enforcement, generally) whether it can reasonably be surmised that the motive for the crime was "hate" against a protected group of people. If so, then the extra protections in this bill come into effect.

There is not, for example, a provision in the bill to punish the speech of someone who is claimed to have motivated a hate crime from somebody else. There's no indirection prosecution of speech, and no sign that it is forthcoming.

Just to be extra clear on this point, the bill has a provision that reads:

Nothing in this Act, or the amendments made by this Act, shall be construed to prohibit any expressive conduct protected from legal prohibition by, or any activities protected by the free speech or free exercise clauses of, the First Amendment to the Constitution.

For all those reasons, I consider that objection raised by various conservative groups to be specious. The more often they raise baseless fear-mongering objections to bills like this, the less I trust their opinions on other matters.

On the other hand, I don't think this bill does much to "move all Americans closer to safety from the scourge of hate violence", either. Hate-motivated violence is, in the end, still violence. The majority of hate-motivated violence can be prosecuted equally well as simply violence. This bill does not make any activity criminal that was not previously criminal. It does not apply significant penalties to any activity that was not already subject to significant penalties. So, in that way, it does not provide any additional deterrent to someone who might carry out a hate-motivated violent crime. It provides some assistance for local law enforcement in prosecuting these crimes; and it lets the federal government step in if local law enforcement is (in the federal government's view) corruptly refusing to prosecute. I don't see how any of that brings anybody "closer to safety".

There are some significant concerns about the bill which have nothing to do with the "thought crimes" fear-mongering of certain conservative groups. Those concerns are best laid out in this post on the Volokh Conspiracy blog, and an earlier post that goes into more detail.

Many of the objections can be summed up by saying that there is no evidence that the law is necessary, or that it will be effective. If the law isn't necessary or effective, then it is at best a symbolic gesture, and at worst may have unintended consequences.

The objection that makes the most sense to me is given by the author of the earlier post:

The column argues that in some cases local jurisdictions lack the resources to prosecute hate crimes, citing the Matthew Shepard case as an example of the high expense involved. Lack of resources is a common complaint of law enforcement authorities at every level — from prevention to investigation to prosecution. But there is no evidence that this claimed lack of resources is a problem unique to hate crimes, or to crimes against gays. Perhaps there should be a general federal local law enforcement assistance act, but why give special assistance to one class of crimes that seem no more costly to law enforcement than another?

A general law enabling the federal government to assist local law enforcement (upon request, and upon approval) with resources and/or finances would make some sense to me. A specific law allowing this only for "hate crimes" seems peculiar. The HRC article refers to the "extraordinary expenses involved in hate crime cases", but it's not clear to me that hate crime cases as a rule have extraordinary expenses. The HRC article gives one example of an expensive case, expensive largely because it was high-profile... but there are plenty of other expensive high-profile cases that have nothing to do with hate against a group of people. Why shouldn't the federal government be allowed to help out with those cases as well, if necessary?

It seems that the sense of necessity of the law is largely built on anecdotal evidence, and that it's purpose is more symbolic than efficacious.

And, there's a larger concern, from a legal Constitutional standpoint. For more details than I can give here, see points (4) and (7) in the earlier Volokh Conspiracy post. But, it seems likely that this law is an unconstitutional intrusion of the federal government on areas where states have sole authority. The text of the bill itself goes to great lengths to try to alleviate this restriction by pointing out how it is related to "interstate commerce" which the federal government can constitutionally regulate. But, you can tell it is stretching when one of the hooks in the bill connecting it to "interstate commerce" reads that a crime can be federally prosecuted if:
the defendant employs a firearm, explosive or incendiary device, or other weapon that has traveled in interstate or foreign commerce
Yeah, you read that right. If the gun or knife or whatever was bought 10 years ago in Texas, but the crime was committed in Oklahoma, then AHA!... this crime affects "interstate commerce" and therefore has federal jurisdiction. I think (and the much more erudite legal minds at Volokh Conspiracy seem to think) that that level of justification goes beyond even the broadest interpretations of the Commerce Clause that our courts have adopted in recent decades.

To its credit, the statement from the White House announcing the possibility of a veto lists these legal and evidentiary concerns, and ignores the "thought crime" concerns that seem to have no basis in reality. But it seems odd to me that the concerns listed in that document (and that I have listed here) are sufficiently grave to warrant a veto, or even the threat of one. If the bill is largely symbolic, and will probably be rejected as unconstitutional anyway, why veto it?

The only reason I can think of is a political one, shoring up support among core constituencies. Unfortunately, there are a great many conservatives, mostly religious, who do not understand the legal ramifications of the Commerce Clause; who are easily persuaded by a news release from an organization such as Focus on the Family Action; and who have no exposure to information from sources that contradict their accepted views. If Bush doesn't veto this bill, they will be convinced that he has willingly opened the doors to prosecution of Christians for "thought crimes" and the end of religious freedom for Christians in America.

Avoiding that ire among a core constituency is the only sensible reason I can think of to veto the bill. It seems to me it would be better to let the bill pass, serve its symbolic purpose, and be invalidated by the courts the first time it is actually put into use. In the end, maybe that's what Bush will decide to do.