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January 24, 2014
Rights and Rights and Right and the Right: Part Three
If the shoe doesn't fit, don't wear it. If it does, let's take a little walk out back, after I tell you about my possible man-crush.
This discussion began some theory two posts ago. Today's offering is a continuation of yesterday's practical discussion. If anything here puzzles you or troubles you, please consult one or both of the previous posts.
I may have a man crush on American Fork Police Chief Lance Call.
In my experience he is intelligent, articulate, sensible, kind, and not the least bit naive. He is practically unflappable. He is a gifted leader and administrator. If all law enforcement officers were like him, or at least working to become like him, the libertarians and the leftists would have a lot less about which to complain.
I've had several opportunities to work with him over the past several years, and I've watched him at work on other occasions, when I've had the chance. For all that, I have seen him visibly angry exactly once, and thereby hangs a tale.
Litter and Hate Speech
A few years ago, there was a city council hearing, then a scheduled vote in the regular meeting, on proposed ordinances to prohibit discrimation in employment and housing in American Fork on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The ordinances were carefully modeled after those the LDS Church endorsed in Salt Lake City, with some reasonable modifications to suit a much smaller city. I was one of many who spoke at the hearing; I spoke in favor of the ordinances.
Opponents won the day. When one of three supporters on the five-person city council backed down, the items were tabled, rather than being put to a vote where they would be defeated. I stayed in the meeting for another item or two on the agenda, after most of the crowd had left the meeting. Finally, I went downstairs and left the building. Outside City Hall I ran into Chief Call, who had been escorting known proponents of the measures from the building to their cars, because he and they had some concerns for their personal safety in the lingering crowd.
Then he showed me what had angered him most. It was a full-page flier with a short verse from Leviticus in large print, suggesting that gays should be killed. Someone had left it on every windshield in the area. Of course, it was anonymous, because some zealots think they can stand up righteously for their views behind a cloak of invisibility. They think that hate speech and even littering are justified, if they promote strongly-held moral views. I'm right, and God's on my side, so all is permitted, you see.
If that last sentence doesn't make your skin crawl, I have grievously overestimated my readers. But back to our story.
The Chief had picked up some of the litter himself, while on escort duty.
It Was a Mormon
What is not generally known, I think, is that the Bible verse the flier quoted was not from the King James Version, or from the American Standard or Revised Standard or Good News Bible. It was from what we Mormons call the Joseph Smith Translation (JST), where the wording of that verse is subtly different and distinctive. The JST is not a translation in the typical sense, but is Joseph Smith's prophetic revision and slight expansion of the King James text. (Whether Joseph had the right to tinker with scripture in that manner depends on whether he was a divinely-called prophet or a blasphemous fraud, which topic is well beyond the scope of this discussion, but I vote with my study . . .)
Like some other Mormons, I routinely use the JST to illuminate my study of the King James Bible. Hardly any non-Mormon uses it.
So the hateful, anonymous litterbug was almost certainly a Mormon and was a more careful student of scripture than some. Yet this Mormon bigot is not well-informed in doctrinal terms. I can tell this by the advocacy of a statute from the Law of Moses, which Mormons and other Christians generally believe to have been fulfilled and superseded by a higher, less bloody law. In other words, whether the quoted verse is scripture or not, in a Christian view it's been irrelevant for about 2000 years.
If anyone cares enough what I think to wonder why I feel compelled to defend and extend the rights of people whose lifestyle I believe offends God in one respect, this story begins to illustrate it. The zealots who share my belief in a particular moral principle seem perfectly willing to use un-Christian and un-American means to advance their cause through politics and the force of law -- not to mention, in my story, outright verbal thuggery.
When they do that, I am compelled to oppose them and defend their victims on the basis of my own Christian and American principles -- and humane principles.
I was summoned recently by e-mail, Facebook, snail mail, and robocall to "urgent" meetings and rallies "in defense of traditional marriage." For some reason folks can't even identify the issue correctly. No one is attempting to ban traditional marriage. Calling the present movement a defense of traditional marriage is like claiming that Wendy's introduction of a vanilla frosty -- disparaged by some as "not a real frosty" -- somehow limits one's right to enjoy the traditional chocolate frosty. They didn't remove the chocolate one from the menu.
I couldn't go to any of the meetings, and I wouldn't have gone anyway. I simply read reports of them and talked to people who attended. To be sure, what is at stake is infinitely more consequential than a frozen dessert. But when people savagely quote the Old Testament on anonymous fliers, toss the word secession around at political meetings, or willfully blur the line between political rally and religious revival -- for some reason, especially in the name of my own religion -- I am moved to be elsewhere.
Harming Your Own Cause
My zealot friends -- and some of you are genuine and treasured friends, in far more than the Facebook sense -- we've arrived at the woodshed. Did I mention we were headed to the woodshed? Let's have a little woodshed intervention, but with words instead of actual sticks.
As valid as your religious convictions may be, you have damaged your own cause by approaching gay marriage, immigration, and numerous other current and recent issues as if the purpose of civil law were to incorporate and enforce your particular set of religious beliefs, and as if your church's doctrine required a specifically stance on a political issue.
It's not just that you have misspent time, energy, and money which might have advanced your cause on other fronts. You have done actual harm. By acting as if the force of law were a legitimate tool to impose moral principles which are no longer the subject of general agreement in our society, you have discredited people who support the same causes through more appropriate and more credible means.
It gets worse. By your untempered words, your zeal to couch public political debates in sectarian religious language, and your willingness to use the force of law where you shouldn't, you have pushed many people who agree with you in some principles to the other side in practice. Now we actively oppose you, or at least feel compelled to disassociate ourselves from you and your message, for the continuing defense of our principles.
You think you are defending our freedom -- even defending society itself from the gathering wrath of God. You could and should be among freedom's ablest defenders. Instead, you are writing American freedom's death sentence, by disregarding others' freedom, by discrediting by association freedom's other defenders in our politics, and by disdaining and disparaging our institutions and processes every bit as much as the left does, because you don't happen to like some of the present results.
On good days you are compromising civilization itself, if that is what's at stake, by concentrating your energies on fighting the right battles on the wrong fronts, with the wrong weapons. On bad days, with all the zeal of people who know they're right, you are fighting on the wrong side.
The best thing you could do for your cause is to take a very thoughtful sabbatical, and come back tomorrow or next week or next year -- just as soon as you are willing to value and defend others' freedom as much as your own, whether you agree with them or not, and just as soon as you can acknowledge that not all of your -- or our -- moral principles can wisely become or remain the governing principles of a pluralistic, free society.
In the next and final post of this series, we're finally ready to take up the topic of same-sex marriage itself.
January 23, 2014
Rights and Rites and Right and the Right: Part Two
If my willingness to embrace gay people as friends, colleagues, neighbors, relatives, and fellow believers incurs the wrath of the God you worship, I am unmoved. The God I worship understands that the worth of every human soul -- yours, mine, everyone's -- is far greater than the sum of its actual or human-perceived sins.
This is the second post in a larger discussion. I recommend reading the first one, but if you'd rather not, you might be okay knowing that it ends with this excellent jumping-off point for today:
Our American civic morality is grounded in these familiar words from the Declaration of Independence: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." We call these inalienable, God-given rights. We declare that they are inherent in each human soul, not granted by government.
Bear in mind that "the pursuit of happiness" means not my right to chase happiness, but my right to live, within the reasonable bounds of legitimate law and of others' similar rights, in the manner which makes me happy -- not the manner which makes you happy or which you think should make me happy. Outside the general moral consensus, as measured by our institutions of representative self-government, if you feel it is in your moral, economic, or political interest to adjust my pursuit of happiness in some manner, you must, in deference to my freedom, confine your efforts at reforming me to persuasion and example. You must not resort to the force of law.
Today we'll take up an application of these principles. We begin with some Broadway music -- or not.
Men of American Fork, Beware
In American Fork, Utah, among other places, men have to be careful not to show too much enthusiasm for live theater. We must also avoid being caught singing or whistling show tunes.
You think I'm being silly, but I'm not. If an employer or supervisor catches us doing such things, whether at work or in a chance encounter in the WalMart check-out line, he can interpret that behavior as evidence that we are gay and fire us for cause. It doesn't matter whether the theater enthusiast is gay or not, and heaven knows we don't want to require or empower employers to test the proposition.
Men and women from cultures where ordinary, non-romantic friends commonly hold hands or kiss on the lips in public must be equally cautious, lest their employers see them, draw false conclusions about their sexuality, and dismiss them from their jobs on that basis. Reality and authentic cultural differences offer no legal shelter against an employer's perceptions in this matter.
Men and women who rent apartments must be cautious. If a landlord thinks a tenant is gay, there is no law to prevent him from evicting said tenant. Again, the renter's actual sexual orientation is not the point -- and, again, we certainly do not want landlords testing renters for authentic gayness.
In case you think the gay/theater stereotype is too silly to be credible, consider what I heard in a certain City committee meeting several years ago in American Fork. Some people argued with a straight face (sorry, pun intended) that we shouldn't do anything to support or encourage live theater in the city, because everybody knows live theater attracts gay people.
I Want the Protection, and I'm Straight
Even Utahns who politically are well to the right of li'l ol' conservative me (a seemingly infinite expanse), and who believe that homosexuality itself should be punished under the law, must concede that it would be unfair for me, a straight man, to be fired or evicted because my fondness for show tunes causes someone falsely to perceive that I am gay. So, unless we are willing to embrace some sort of authoritative, unconscionably invasive test for gayness, we have a real problem, if the right bigot with the wrong stereotype catches me whistling something from Brigadoon.
We can minimize my risk and spare landlords and employers the temptation to question everyone's sexual orientation rather simply. Let's pass sensible ordinances prohibiting discrimination in employment and housing on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. To be sensible, these ordinances would have to include exceptions for religious and other advocacy organizations and for employment or residence in someone else's home -- because at my home, more than anywhere else, I should have more latitude to enforce my particular principles than in an office, factory, or apartment complex.
The Utah Legislature will consider just such a bill in coming weeks. I hope they pass it, this time.
I assume that my right-wing friends would be eager to provide me, a heterosexual male, with legal protection from "the right bigot with the wrong stereotype," if only it did not, as a practical matter, require them to offer some shelter to actual homosexuals at the same time, and thus -- in their view -- offend God and jeopardize the very survival of human civilization.
The Universal Protected Class
Opponents commonly argue that the proposed legislation will create a new "protected class" -- and then they range from vague to creative in their attempts to explain what that might mean in practice. Let gay people live and work in our communities, and all our teeth will fall out, and BYU will never will another important football game. Sometimes it's almost that ridiculous.
Opponents are right in at least this limited sense: protected classes get special consideration in our jurisprudence. Whether we would be created a new protected class or not seems almost immaterial to me. Here's why.
As far as I can see, we would just be acknowledging my gay and transgender friends' membership in a very large protected class which already exists: humans. Or Americans, if you prefer. We would simply be adding sexual orientation and gender identity (in both cases, perceived or otherwise) to the list of things we cannot use as grounds partially to exclude people from the most important, most generously defined protected class of all.
How Far Are You Willing to Go?
To my right-wing friends who oppose such legislation, because you believe homosexual activity is immoral -- I believe that too, and I should be free to say so without being accused of hate speech -- I pose a few questions.
Given that you believe homosexual activity to be evil, how far are you willing to go to make gays unwelcome in your community?
Do you believe that gays forfeit the legal right to pursue happiness on their terms, in the community of their choice, because one aspect of their lifestyle is evil, according to what you and I accept as God-given moral law?
Can you with clear conscience jeopardize their homes and families or their jobs, as long as you don't put them in jail (severely curtail their physical liberty) or kill them (deprive them of life)?
Thin, Thinner, Water
The right to life is pretty thin broth if you're willing to grant it to gays only in the sense that you will refrain from killing them, but you feel free (irony noted) to make it difficult for them to live in your community. The right to liberty is equally thin if you think that the presence in your community of people who disagree with some of your moral principles infringes on your own legitimate liberty. The broth is practically water, if you think that you have adequately safeguarded someone else's liberty simply by agreeing not to put him in jail.
I have gay friends, colleagues, neighbors, and relatives. I may not endorse one aspect of their lifestyle. I may sometimes teach and preach against it. But I do not claim the right to evict them from my community, and I am determined to defend them as best I can from those who think it is their God-given right or duty to do so. I actually enjoy having my gay friends in my community, not because of their sexual orientation, but because there is much more to them than their sexual orientation -- and most of that is good.
If my willingness to embrace them as friends, colleagues, neighbors, relatives, and fellow believers incurs the wrath of the God you worship, I am unmoved. The God I worship understands that the worth of every human soul -- yours, mine, everyone's -- is far greater than the sum of its actual or human-perceived sins.
My zealot friends, if you feel the need to act in defense of your values -- as I do -- please, do so vigorously. Use every humane tool of persuasion at your disposal. I promise to defend you when some of your more intolerant opponents argue that criticizing someone's lifestyle on religious grounds is hate speech. But don't try to use the law in matters where there is no -- or is no longer -- general agreement in American society. When you attempt to use the law, I feel the need to defend those against whom you would use it, whether I agree with them or endorse every facet of their lifestyle or not.
A genuine commitment to freedom requires that we get used to defending people with whom we disagree. It's good for society. It's good for the soul.
Even if those people are gay. Or like show tunes. Or both.
(If you want to know how I evaluate same-sex marriage in this context, stay tuned. We're most of the way to that discussion now. Before we get there, we'll need to discuss my possible man-crush and a figurative woodshed. If you're troubled by the question, How can a good Mormon write such things as this post, read the first post in this series. Maybe it will help.)
January 22, 2014
Rights and Rites and Right and the Right: Part One
I am attempting to reason my way through, first, some basic American principles and, second, their possible applications to some thorny modern questions. Eventually -- not today -- I'll get to the question of same-sex marriage itself.
We're on our way to a discussion of same-sex marriage, but first we have to lay some groundwork. Today's portion considers law, morality, and their intersection in a relatively free society. This particular train of thought leads me to a conclusion you may not like. I have not always liked it. I am interested to learn whether it leads you there, as well.
Moral Principles in Common
In a healthy, reasonably free nation, law is an expression of the common morality. Absolute consensus on any moral point is rare, but we generally concur on some fundamental principles. For example, there is general (if not quite universal) agreement in American society that murder, rape, battery, and theft are wrong and can appropriately be judged and punished by government. So we outlaw these evils and punish the perpetrators as criminals.
In such a nation there is also general consent that we will work through established, peaceful processes to create, repeal, and amend the law. We acknowledge, usually implicitly, that we will accept the processes and institutions of constitutional government in our democratic republic as the official instrument for measuring (among other things) the collective moral will of the people and our collective sense of what behaviors should and should not be subject to the law. Please note that general agreement is much broader and less volatile than simple majority opinion. We routinely and properly protect the rights of minorities against majorities in a variety of ways, but that picture becomes clouded when we consider the small minorities who do disagree with what is generally agreed upon. I certainly would not claim that the general consensus is always just -- only that it is the best we have at a given moment.
Our governmental processes and institutions are designed such that a simple majority opinion is not enough to enact fundamental change in the most important matters. We deliberately subject proposed fundamental changes to slow and complex processes. The cumulative effect of our representative government, the separation of powers, federalism, fixed terms of office, and bicameral legislatures is to make it difficult for a simple, small, transitory majority to make dramatic changes quickly in American government or society.
Why Would Things Ever Change?
You might wonder why we would need to "create, repeal, and amend" the law which expresses and institutionalizes our shared sense of morality. Many people believe that moral principles -- the basic definitions of good and evil -- are unchanging; I myself believe this. So why would the laws reflecting them need to change? Why should we ever allow them to change? Why would we even have mechanisms for changing them?
There are at least two reasons.
First, some change is good and necessary. Sometimes we must modify the law so that it more perfectly reflects our principles. This process in itself can be protracted and grim, but in the long run a closer match between our principles and our behavior is a good thing. We improved our national commitment to the dignity and freedom of individual humans by banning first the slave trade, then slavery itself, on which the economy of a large part of the United States once depended. We improved it further by banning discrimination on the basis of race or creed. We extended our commitment to property rights by adopting laws protecting intellectual property. We improved our practice of the principle of self-government by acknowledging that women, too, have a right to vote. Such changes show the increasing penetration of historically American principles into American society and behavior.
The second reason for modifying our laws is that the set of moral principles we generally share changes. I'm not saying that divine or natural law or moral principles themselves necessarily change, but our sense of what they are and how they apply to our lives certainly does. The set of principles and applications on which we generally agree today is almost certain to be different from the set we had in common ten or twenty years ago. The ways in which we balance our core principles against each other in the face of events and circumstances is also dynamic. Even our sense of which principles are suitable for enforcement through the law evolves. Because we are not God, we must allow room for improvement.
Allowing for things to get better opens the possibility that things may get worse. You hardly need me to tell you that some of the changes in our moral landscape may not be improvements. I'll leave you to list your own examples.
Here's Where It Gets Dicey
Here's the hard part: In what I called "a healthy, reasonably free nation," when a moral principle ceases to be generally accepted in society, the government properly ceases to enforce it, by changing or repealing relevant law. The same is true if we cease generally to think that a principle is suitable for enforcement in the law, even if we still accept the principle.
This is not the same as declaring that the fading principle is not true. This is not the same as saying that people who still believe it must be silenced or compelled by force of law to violate it. We can teach, preach, and persuade all day and into the night. But we must cease to use the law to enforce on society a principle which society no longer generally accepts or no longer believes to be a proper concern of the law. We must do so even when we still believe that principle to be true, and even when we believe that society will self-destruct if we neglect that principle for long. To reinstate such a principle legitimately in law, we must first persuade the generality of society to accept it again, both as a pillar of our civic morality and as something which criminal law should address.
I did not just say that we who have moral principles which are reflected in the law must immediately surrender every moral point. The law is not our only tool for changing or protecting our civilization. It is not even our most powerful tool. If we are consumed by our passion to embody (or protect) our moral principles in the law, one of the sad consequences is that we neglect to use other, better tools.
Society's movement in these matters is rarely linear and steady. But consider, for example, the several states which have recently legalized the sale, purchase, possession, and smoking of marijuana. The general sense in these states is that getting high on weed is not morally wrong, and a growing majority appears now to accept the idea that it is not sufficiently harmful to society (whether right or wrong) to continue to be banned.
Consider another example. There used to be laws against adultery. It's possible (though I don't recommend it) to construe sexual infidelity among married people to be an offense against a marriage licensed by the state, and therefore against the state itself. Even if there is still a general sense among most people -- as I think there still is -- that cheating on your spouse is morally wrong, there is now a general consensus that it is not something society should punish as a criminal offense. So adultery laws are rare, and any that still exist go unenforced. Whether this evolution is a tragedy for morality or a triumph for freedom and privacy is a matter of opinion, I suppose. Perhaps it depends on the relative weight of individual freedom in our personal morality.
It can be difficult to accept that our freedom requires respecting others' freedom, even when we're morally right and they're morally wrong. Yet it is an important test of an individual's commitment to freedom. This is an especially bitter pill, I know, where matters such as abortion and the legal definition of marriage are concerned.
Difficulties notwithstanding, I cannot escape the conclusion that, where there is a proper respect for human freedom and a proper commmitment to limited government, there must also be a general sense that, outside the bounds of our basic, shared civic morality, it is wrong for me to use the force of law to impose my particular moral principles on you -- even if I am still in the majority at some level of government, and even if I'm right, which, of course, I sometimes am.
Perhaps you want all of this to be simple. That is the one thing it cannnot be. There are hundreds of millions of living humans in this picture, not just diverse moral and religious principles intersecting hypothetically in a free society.
The Familiar Pillars of Our Civic Morality
I believe it is important that I don't need my particular principles to come to what I have said; all I need is some historically American principles, which I choose to believe we still have mostly in common.
Our American civic morality is grounded in these familiar words from the Declaration of Independence: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." We call these inalienable, God-given rights. We declare that they are inherent in each human soul, not granted by government.
Bear in mind that "the pursuit of happiness" means not my right to chase happiness, but my right to live, within the reasonable bounds of legitimate law and of others' similar rights, in the manner which makes me happy -- not the manner which makes you happy or which you think should make me happy. Outside the general moral consensus, as measured (imperfectly, I admit) by our institutions of representative self-government, if you feel it is in your moral, economic, or political interest to adjust my pursuit of happiness in some manner, you must, in deference to my freedom, confine your efforts at reforming me to persuasion and example. You must not resort to the force of law.
It's not yet apparent, but this was never intended to be a purely theoretical discussion. Next time, I'll make it obvious. We won't get all the way to the subject of same-sex marriage in the next post, but we're moving rapidly toward that topic. Stay tuned.
David Rodeback comments (1/24/2014):
December 31, 2013
Brain Food, Networked Underwear, Antarctic Adventures . . .
. . . SAMs, drones, conspiracy theories, signs of the times . . .
Have you had enough politics for the year yet? I want to get a few things off my desk before 2014. There's a dash of politics here and there, but more humor than politics, I hope. And this post comes with pictures.
It's probably just a coincidence, I know. The first time I saw this sign on a prominent corner in American Fork, where one often sees political signs, was just after Election Day. American Fork voters defeated a very sensible proposed bond issue to help rebuild roads by a ridiculous 71-29 percent margin.
I thought, when I saw this sign, that the offer of enhanced brain function came just a little too late to save our roads and our wallets.
Without Further Comment
All I'm saying about this photo is that I took it somewhere between Fort Collins, Colorado, and the Wyoming border.
You can come up with your own caption.
Amazon Drones and WalMart SAMs
This is satire.
Amazingly, or perhaps inevitably, this next thing isn't . . .
Microsoft Smart Bra
When I first read about the Microsoft Smart Bra, I thought it was the ultimate (male) hacker paradise. Any schlub can hack into a bank or the Department of Defense, but then it's been there, done that, and on to Chinese nuclear missile codes. I can't see most hackers losing interest in bras . . .
This one is
embedded with physiological sensors that seek to monitor a woman's heart activity to track her emotional moods and combat overeating. The sensors can signal the wearer's smartphone, which then flash a warning message to help her step away from the fridge and make better diet decisions.
If it contacts a smart phone, it must be on the grid somehow, so it can be hacked remotely, which is about as close as some hackers will ever get to . . . Well, you know where that's going.
I'll pause for a couple of moments to allow you to run free through the fertile fields of metaphors and double entendres that beckon you at this moment. This is a relatively family-friendly blog, so we'll never know to what extend your list overlaps with mine.
Are you finished? Good. Now we worry a little.
What if some unrestrained leftist meddler who holds political office (as former New York City Mayor Michael "Sixteen Ounce Soda" Bloomberg won't tomorrow) decides to exploit this? What if Michelle Obama persuades our tyrant-in-chief to mandate . . .
No, no, it could be even worse. What if the White House decides that the Orwellian Affordable Care Act authorizes the administration to mandate the use of other smart, connected underthings to solve other societal problems . . . and this paragraph has to end now, believe me.
The trendiest question would probably involve the National Security Agency, and that's a good place to end, really, because it takes us back to the happy place where we began: geeks and bras.
Conspiracies Put in Their Place
I didn't, but if you spent Christmas dinner with the conspiracy theorists in the family, who felt compelled to verbalize, you might appreciate this cartoon. Apologies and a warning in advance for one of the words.
It's Summer in Antarctica
Anecdotes do not constitute data, but I was delighted several years ago when eight inches of snow greeted a global warming protest in Washington, DC. I was there at the time for other purposes. I will say that the outbound warmists I met at the airport that evening took the inclement weather and its timing with grace and good cheer.
I'd laugh a little more than I already have at a Greenpeace ship full of warmists getting stuck in Antarctic ice, and three rescue icebreakers getting stuck too, if (a) I hadn't heard about the third icebreaker while sitting in the dentist's chair, and (b) if it didn't involve actual human beings stuck in Antarctic ice. Still, if God meddles much with the weather, you have to appreciate his sense of humor. Or irony. Or something.
Meanwhile, a Utah man I know, Daniel Burton, is in Antarctica, riding his bike to the South Pole. When he started, no one had done it before, but last week someone did. So he won't be the first -- just the second or third. That should still be a good conversation starter at parties for, oh, the next few decades.
Send a good, warm thought his way. You can follow his progress at his blog.
Happy New Year, everyone!
December 29, 2013
Next Time American Fork City Wants to Bond
How to pass a prudent bond issue sometime in the future, if we start now.
Having devoted some (virtual) ink here of late to the elephant-size political problem in American Fork's city council chambers, beginning next week, I now turn to some practical but thorny questions about how to function in spite of the elephant.
Today's question is, In view of the recent election results, is there any hope for prudent bonding in the City's near future? (Stay tuned for later discussion of an even more pressing question, What might the City do to approach roads sensibly in the near future, now that the voters have rejected the most prudent approach?)
The City as an institution did a good job explaining the road bond issue proposal to any voters who were willing to become informed. It did as good a job as it could reasonably do
within legal limitations -- and without turning the clock back and changing certain things over the past several years, of which more below. However, as the 71-29 percent defeat shows, it wasn't nearly enough to overcome the zealot wave. Most voters didn't work hard enough to see past that wave's very casual relationship with the truth and its deceptive appeals to common prejudices and stereotypes about government and government officials.
Next Time We Want to Issue Bonds . . . Don't
The most prudent thing for the foreseeable future, when the City needs money for roads or other essential things, would be for the city council simply to vote to raise property taxes, even if it takes a 3-2 vote in a body that likes consensus. The 2014-15 council may or many not be willing to do that; it might be political suicide. Yet the much ballyhooed "pay as you go" philosophy, if rationally considered in our present, local context, reveals itself to be a code phrase for tax increases.
Elections are real, important, legitimate concerns; generally speaking, if you can't get elected, you can't govern. If members of the city council want to be reelected, rather than politically destroyed by the same deceptive machine that dominated 2013, even the sensible ones may throw up their hands, declare the obvious -- that the majority of voters wants to gripe about the roads and blame people, but will reject any real solution -- and turn their attention to less inflammatory matters. Democracy, it is said, is the theory that the voters know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.
The Time after That
City leaders may think it desirable to propose another bond issue to the voters for some purpose or other. Here are some things they'll have to do. All of them might be enough.
- Figure out who the destroyers are likely to be -- perhaps the same semi-anonymous cowards as this time. Do so well in advance, so the City can appoint some of the zealot opinion leaders to help craft an alternative that actually addresses the problem. Maybe they'll learn. If they produce a good plan, we'll have a good plan. If they produce a bad plan, at least they'll have something of their own to defend, and sensible leaders and candidates can shoot at it while the zealots shoot at the City and incumbents. If they can't come up with a plan, we can highlight that every hour of every day for six months, if necessary. (Memo to City leaders: If you can't co-opt the zealots in this manner, please just vote to raise property taxes and save us all the trouble, and start your reelection campaign now.)
- Much as I disdain the tendency to filter all communication from departments to the city council through a single administrator, a similar approach might help in this context: Pick a small team of experts (in both subject matter and communications) and make them the public information team. Have all other City staff refer all questions to them -- and because they won't do this universally, make sure the rest of the staff knows the talking points well.
- The City itself cannot cross the line from informing to promoting a bond issue, but individual members of the city council can. Those who favor the bond, once they've mastered the message, need to spend months on front porches and in living rooms, listening and answering questions and concerns.
(Note: This is far too much to expect of city councilors, but it might be necessary to pass a bond issue.)
- Use the City web site so well that people not only stay long enough actually to learn what's going on, but are also enthusiastic about sending their friends a link.
- Don't expect the destroyers to stick to the rules or the facts. In fact, expect them not to. Don't get angry when this happens; just stay steadily on the offensive.
As to the last item above,
I have reports from poll workers and others of road bond opponents illegally passing out partisan fliers and trying to persuade others who were waiting in line to vote. There are also well-documented cases of the bond opposition placing signs illegally (without property owner permission) and vandalizing others' signs. Every candidate's supporters include a few people who don't care enough about the rules to learn and obey them, or who think being right in principle makes breaking actual rules okay. But I wonder if a zealous, fact-resistant campaign like the bond opposition this year doesn't encourage that attitude somehow.
Growing Pains (Because That Won't Be Enough)
All of this put together may not be enough, if the zealots are energized. Opposing them, co-opting them as much as possible, and controlling the City's message better may not have turned a 71-29 percent defeat into a 51-49 percent victory in November. There's one other thing that would have been necessary, and by 2013 it was too late to start it for the purpose of affecting 2013 election results.
It's one of the growing pains of a small city emerging from a small town, so I'm not blaming anyone. But the sooner the City gets serious and professional about public communications, the better our city government will be. Here are three ways in which such an effort, sustained over the past several years, could have led us and our roads to a happier place.
First, those of us who have been paying attention to such things for the last several years have seen City officials and staff work tirelessly -- and sometimes creatively -- to cut costs without doing unnecessary damage to people or programs. As recently as this year, some paid positions were cut. I tend to be critical of governments generally, but I have found little to criticize in American Fork City's efforts to economize over the past several years, during our sustained national economic downturn. Having watched this immunized me against the absurd zealot claims that the City has been wasting money by the carload and that there is a vast, fertile field of easy and obvious spending cuts to be harvested by anyone with an ounce of will to do so.
Most voters never saw most of this. Had the City been attentive to the need for professional public communication, most voters would have known what was going on to some degree, with or without the City leaning a local newspaper as a crutch.
By the way, one of the problems with cutting quality-of-life programs like arts and recreation in lean years is that, when more funds are available, you can't just wave the money around and have a good program. Solid programs take years and decades to build, so you try to preserve them at some level of funding even when money is tight.
Second, the zealot wave blamed current and recent leaders for everything from crumbling roads to high water rates, and it grievously misrepresented any number of facts. Most voters were willing to believe them, not realizing that the roots of the problem were in the 1990s. To some degree, conscientious, professional public communications from the City could have immunized many voters and residents against this misinformation.
Third, one of the zealot wave's central arguments was that the City had no plan for ongoing road maintenance and reconstruction, and that it wasn't giving the public enough information about the bond issue proposal. The charge that there was no plan was simply a lie; a public informed properly over the long term would have known this, as would anyone who attended one of the four road bond information meetings and paid attention. "Enough" in "enough information" is a subjective judgment, I know. For my part, I love lots of information, and I was quite pleased with what the City offered.
But there is a larger problem here, and the large, ugly, anonymous signs that went up before the election, claiming the public needed more information, illustrate this greater concern. There is a tendency among the lazy, the tired, and the overworked to prefer the ease of embracing conspiracy theories (the government is hiding something!) to the greater effort of learning to understand more complex realities. Moreover, in a real absence of information, the mind tends to grasp for and believe anything it can, no matter how absurd or false. Then it tends to blame others for not providing information, not itself for failing to go get it. A culture of responsible, conscientious, professional communication from and about local government, built over a period of years and sustained energetically, can eradicate most of this -- though never all of it, I'm sure. In such a culture, most voters' response to those big signs would have been like mine: to scoff and disbelieve.
In short, City leadership needs to learn well the nature and importance of systematic, professional public communication. We're not on the verge of it now; we're a long way from it. If we can get there, we'll see more efficient and economical local government, more sensible electoral results, and fewer lawsuits. And we might even be able to keep using our streets.
Meanwhile, the voters have put the City in a position where the only rational thing it can do to save our roads is to raise taxes. Alas.
December 26, 2013
Random Thoughts on the Passing Scene
From random acts of kindness to ducks and Swallow, from global cooling to gay marriage.
Here are some accumulated musings, including some on topics which deserve more attention than I'll be giving them today.
Random Acts of Kindness, etc.
Random acts of kindness are far better than no kindness at all. But there's something about their randomness which makes them seem non-committal and dismissive. Here, I'll do this kind thing for you, stranger, and it might help you, and it will make me feel really good. Then I'll go back to my normal life and leave you squarely in the middle of whatever you're suffering, and no more intimately connected to me than before. Wouldn't systematic acts of kindness, perhaps even to the degree of befriending someone, be of more lasting value to both the actor and the recipient? This model is a lot less convenient, of course.
On a related note, surely we can see that random good is insufficient to oppose organized evil.
On a weirdly related note, I wonder: Is there any merit or meaning in kind acts of randomness?
A Federal Budget Resolution
I dislike some things about the federal budget resolution, such its size and its cuts in military pensions, but it's been years since the Senate was willing to produce any budget resolution at all. This nod toward responsible governance is a big step forward for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and I'm thinking it might be at least a small step forward for the country, imperfections notwithstanding.
For the record, as a delegate I voted against John Swallow in his race for Utah Attorney General. I voted against him as a voter. There was a reason for that. When I'm looking to hire an attorney, I try to avoid the prospects who make me want to take a shower when I listen to them talk or watch them work a crowd.
I hate to say I told you so. Wait, I really don't.
Duck, Duck, . . .
I'm not a Duck Dynasty fan, though I used to enjoy some other A&E programming years ago, when I had cable television and could watch A&E. Here are a few thoughts:
- I wonder how many of the people who are condemning Phil Robertson for his remarks in GQ or condemning A&E for suspending him actually read the whole, long GQ article.
I did. The writer has some skill but is just about as vulgar as his subject. GQ is not the first place one turns for tasteful, urbane, politicially correct prose.
- There's no First Amendment case here. Robertson's constitutional freedom of speech protects him from the government, not a television network. The network has its own freedom of speech (or press), and is acting entirely within it when it suspends Robertson for offensive, public remarks which contradict the network's values.
In their place I might have done the same, regardless of politics.
- Sarah Palin already was missing from my list of credible Republican presidential possibilities, even if she was more qualified than her running mate and both names on the opposing ticket in 2008. Her siding with Robertson against A&E on supposed First Amendment grounds is just one more bit of proof that she lacks the wisdom and judgment needed for in the Oval Office. I willingly say the same of other lightweight conservatives who jump on the same bandwagon. Regrettably, would-be heavyweight Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is flirting with lightweight status himself over this one, and so is
Senator Ted Cruz.
- I don't particularly like duck.
Last but not least, am I the only one thinking this whole thing might have been just a big, smart marketing ploy to get Duck Dynasty gear to fly off the shelves just before Christmas?
This Is What Tyranny Looks Like
John Fund identifies the 14th illegal change in ObamaCare -- illegal, that is, because it's our lawless president making the changes arbitrarily, without Congressional action or legal authority. When a president takes it upon himself to make substantive changes in the law, rather than letting Congress do its job, he is more of a monarch than a president.
However, anyone who still surprised at this behavior just hasn't been paying attention.
Global, uh, Cooling?
Please tell me 1970s hairstyles aren't coming back. Please!
I mention this because, back in the 1970s, we were worried about global cooling too, and it's back.
Let's say for a moment, for the sake of argument, that I accept the shaky theorem that human activity can significantly affect these climate patterns. If I were an acolyte of global warming, I would have to accept that, right? So if the globe is now cooling, we need to reverse that, to avert an ice age which is already (so I hear) long overdue.
Therefore, we need more greenhouse gases, not less, and this is an emergency! Drive your cars, everyone, as much as you can! Burn coal, if you can find it! Feed your children and your cattle chili with every meal! (Remember the global concern over the climatological effects of cow flatulence?) Breathe heavily whenever possible! Kill trees, bushes, plants whenever you can; they're breathing the CO2 we need to warm the planet!
Actually, please don't do that stuff. I like to breathe. Instead, read this. Calmly.
And the Left Rolls On
Historically, people who believe in forced redistribution of wealth (socialists, communists, modern American Democrats, etc.) find inheritance particularly offensive, because it tends to keep wealth in the family and the social class. I'm not making this up; this is years of academic study of history and political theory talking. Sometimes revolutions abolish all inheritance. More commonly, the redistributionists tax it heavily, as in the United States. So a report I saw the other day is completely in character. ObamaCare is forcing millions of people into Medicaid, where the government can go after their estates, upon their death, to get its money back. Their heirs are just out of luck.
They call it "estate recovery."
Gay Marriage in Utah
The chief difference between me and a federal judge is that I don't claim the moral, legal, or intellectual authority to redefine words such as marriage to suit my own political views. Nor am I comfortable with a single judge tinkering with the central pillar of human civiliation. I think such matters are better left to the normal political processes, and even that makes me nervous.
While I have publicly advocated local laws prohibiting discrimination in housing and employment on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identification, I have never supported redefining marriage as we have just done in Utah. I think it is unwise. I think it is arrogant to assume that we can foresee the sociological consequences. If it must be done, it ought to be done by the legislature and the people, as it was in Washington State, not by a judge.
The primary case for government encouraging traditional marriage rests on society's interest in having as high a percentage of children as possible raised in two-parent homes by their biological parents. (Spare me all the arguments about how that doesn't always work. I'm not stupid.) Schools work better, jails fill up more slowly, poverty is far less common and less permanent, and so forth. If we jettison this motive and officially value marriage only as a legal, committed, formal, public relationship between two people who love each other, it's hard to make a non-religious case against gay marriage. By the way, if we jettison that motive (as we mostly have), gay marriage won't be nearly our biggest problem.
In any case, my and my coreligionists' freedom of religion can remain intact in a society where gay marriage is legal, as long as its official advocates respect others' freedoms as much as they love their own. If there is such respect, here's what we won't see:
- people and/or judges trying to force churches and clergy to perform gay marriages if they perform any marriages at all;
- charges and lawsuits against wedding cake makers, photographers, wedding planners, bands, etc., who refuse to be hired for gay weddings.
Regrettably, we're already seeing some litigation of these things in other states. Clearly, freedom is not these litigants' first concern.
For some people, a political victory isn't a political victory unless you can use it to oppress someone.