Fundamental dishonesty

It wasn’t a “driveway moment” because I wasn’t in my driveway, I wasn’t sitting in the car listening to the radio to hear the end of a story that had sucked me in.  No, I was still on the road headed home from the grocery store when I heard two words that broke through and provided some clarity of mind, finally, amid the onslaught of distressing rulings from the Supreme Court of the United States.

Just a week ago, the court’s six “conservative” justices ruled that a program in Maine that subsidizes tuition for certain private schools in rural areas of the state cannot exclude religious private schools from the program.  Two days later the same six found that a New York law placing strict limits on carrying guns in public violates the Second Amendment.  And the day after that, those same six members not only found that a Mississippi ban on abortions after just 15 weeks was constitutional, they went the extra step and overturned the nearly 50-year old precedent of their own court that established a woman’s right to an abortion.

The separation of church and state.  The rights to privacy, and to safety, individual liberty, and self-determination.  The targets of this Supreme Court and the “conservative” movement in general couldn’t be clearer.  With each new Republican-appointed justice on the court, and each new ruling by the new majority, they demonstrate their mission to remake America as a paradigm of Christian nationalism.  It seems clear that the decades-long mission to destroy the secular society that has grown up since World War II just can’t be denied, not even when the inconvenience of the facts gets in the way.

It was Nina Totenberg on the radio reporting on the ruling in favor of the high school coach who insisted on holding a prayer circle at midfield after football games, and Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion scolded the school district:

“Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance, based on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination. Mr. Kennedy is entitled to summary judgment on his religious exercise and free speech claims,” Gorsuch wrote.

The three dissenters said that account of the facts blinkered reality (emphasis added). Writing for the three liberals, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that Kennedy’s prayer was neither private speech, nor benign. She pointed to the fact that the coach conducted a media blitz leading ultimately to the field being stormed and students being knocked down. And she said “schools face a higher risk of unconstitutionally ‘coerc[ing] … support or participat[ion] in religion or its exercise’ than other government entities.”

“This decision does a disservice to schools and the young citizens they serve, as well as to our Nation’s longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state,” Sotomayor wrote. “Today’s decision elevates the rights of a school coach who voluntarily accepted public employment, over the rights of students required to attend public schools and who may feel obligated to join in prayer.” In doing so, Sotomayor claims, the court gives “short shrift” to the constitutions ban on state entanglement with religion.

University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock usually files briefs siding with religion advocates. But not in this case. He called Monday’s ruling, “fundamentally dishonest” and pointed to the third sentence of the Gorsuch opinion, which characterizes coach Kennedy’s conduct as “quiet isolated prayers,” stating, “They weren’t quiet and they weren’t isolated. They were leading the students in prayer, and to say that’s okay undermines all the school prayer cases.” By that he means Supreme Court decisions barring teacher- or student-led prayers in public school classrooms, and ceremonies like graduation.

It was like a fire alarm went off inside my head: “fundamentally dishonest.”

Yes—the fundamental dishonesty of these justices, and of the Christian religious extremists who have been fighting the secularization of American society for generations!  They have had a winking understanding with a certain segment of America: anything is permissible—the end justifies the means—when it comes to returning America to be the Christian country we all “know” it should be, including lying under oath in order to gain positions of power.  Don’t believe me?  Look at the video of the confirmation hearings over the years of the “conservative” justices now on the court: is it just a coincidence that when the Senate Judiciary Committees asked these nominees about Roe v. Wade, these individuals had the same answer, in virtually the same words, words meant to leave the impression that they believed in the doctrine of stare decisis in general and specifically for this case?  I think not.

In a concurring opinion on Dobbs, Justice Clarence Thomas says the quiet part out loud about using the wedge they perfected in overturning Roe to take aim at other precedents that guarantee other rights to Americans.

“In future cases, we should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell,” Thomas wrote on Page 119 of the opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, also referring to the rulings that legalized same-sex relationships and marriage equality, respectively.Because any substantive due process decision is ‘demonstrably erroneous’ … we have a duty to ‘correct the error’ established in those precedents.”

Just coincidence, right, that the other cases on his mind are the ones that guaranteed the rights to same-sex marriage, and same-sex sex, and the use of birth control.  BIRTH CONTROL!?  He wants to return to a time when the use of birth control by married couples in the privacy of their own home could be and was prohibited by states?  Who can even imagine such a thing?

I know who…so do you.  And I don’t take any comfort—at all—in the protestation from the other five “conservative” justices that “[n]othing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion.”  When there is fundamental dishonesty, I have doubts.

Enough

Joe Holley is a writer here in Texas with a background in newspapers and magazines right up to his own books.  He writes the feature column Native Texan in the Houston Chronicle about Texas places and people and history, and today he started off referring to “The Captured,” a history of frontier Texas telling the story of Anglo children captured by Indians in the late 19th century.  He uses it to touch on the harshness of life on the Texas frontier in those days, facing not only the Natives but the constant threat of disease, and outlaws, you name it.  And yet, Holley says,

…it’s only today’s Texas, our Texas, that experiences mass shootings in a suburban high school, in churches, a Walmart, an Army base, the streets of Midland-Odessa, a Luby’s Cafeteria and a small-town elementary school. Our frontier forebears, whatever their own travails, would have been aghast, unbelieving.

I’m wondering, why aren’t all of us today just as aghast and unbelieving?  Sure, with each new horror we mumble some hopefully appropriate words to express shock and disbelief, but are we really so surprised?  I mean, it just keeps happening, over and over again; can we really still be shocked, and really feel the emptiness in the pits of our stomachs that we ought to feel when innocent children are massacred with weapons meant for war on the battlefield?  This time, in Uvalde, it was fourth graders…nine and ten year olds; it was six-and-seven-year olds in Sandy Hook in Newtown, Conn. ten years ago.  The Washington Post chose the almost arbitrary starting point of the Columbine shootings in 1999 and calculates that more than 311,000 American children, at 331 schools, have been exposed to gun violence at school in those years.  All the students in that time, right up through today’s college graduates, have normalized the grotesque concept of the active shooter drill as just a part of life.

Why would a person take a gun to a school and open fire at…some kids, ones they often don’t even know?  Why did I take a magnifying glass to school in the fourth grade and focus sunlight to burn holes in a classmate’s sweater I found hanging on a fence at recess?  Same response to both questions: who knows?  Short of finding that answer, we should be doing something to try to reduce the chances of our schools become killing grounds, and of our own children and those of our friends and neighbors becoming one of those small images in a large collection of class photos that identify the dead.

Holley recalls the 1937 natural gas explosion that killed some 300 students and teachers in New London, Texas, and that the Texas Legislature and then Congress responded to that by requiring the “odorization” of natural gas so future leaks could be detected before they became catastrophes.  What can we, through our elected representatives, do now to make a meaningful change in the normal course of business that will better protect our children’s lives when they simply go to school?

Among the common sense suggestions I’ve read since last week – and not that it hasn’t been suggested before – is that we stop letting children buy these guns legally.  Our laws prohibit those under age 21 from buying alcoholic beverages; why not guns, too?  Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who’s been working on gun restriction legislation since he represented Newtown in the House of Representatives, argues that “most of these killers tend to be 18, 19 years old.” and PolitiFact has rated that claim as Mostly True: “That’s largely accurate when looking at school shootings alone, according to a Washington Post database of school shootings since 1999. The database did include shootings that did not result in a death, and the share of teenagers committing mass shootings overall is smaller.”

Also judged to be Mostly True is the assertion last week by Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, that “90% of Americans, regardless of political party, want universal background checks.”  PolitiFact finds that “For years, polls have shown a majority of Americans support gun background checks for all buyers. Some polls show overall support in the ballpark of 90%. Support is lower among Republicans (emphasis added), but polls still indicate majority backing” for a review designed to make sure that guns are not being sold to people who are not permitted under law to possess guns, people who have been “convicted of a serious crime or committed to a mental institution.”

No right guaranteed under the United States Constitution is absolute.  The law recognizes, even when some Americans don’t or won’t, that rights come with some limitations.  Even your right to life is not absolute, not if you are convicted of committing a crime for which the approved punishment is the loss of your life.  Your right to be free of government censorship of your expression of your thoughts and feelings doesn’t mean your speech can endanger the health and safety of others with impunity.  And none of us has an unrestricted right to gun ownership.

Please, let’s get creative.  Adding mercaptan to AR-15s won’t stop school shootings, but expanding background checks and limiting gun ownership by minors will help.  We’ve got to find something else that will make a difference.  We can’t just accept that this is the way things have to be, and there’s nothing we can do.  I don’t want to settle for the situation Holley found himself in as he finished up his phone call with the Uvalde County Judge, Bill Mitchell:

When it came time to hang up, I tried to tell him how sorry I was. My voice broke. So did his. Perhaps for both of us, the faces of those little kids swam into view.

We were two men of a certain age. We’ve seen much over the years. Words failed us.

Say the truth

It feels like it’s been going soooo slooooowly, but maybe we’re going to see some movement.  Chairman Bennie Thompson says the first public hearings on what the House January 6 committee has learned will be held in early June, and committee member Jamie Raskin is describing what they have learned this way: “This was a coup organized by the president (Donald Trump) against the vice-president (Mike Pence) and against the Congress in order to overturn the 2020 presidential election” and “We’re going to tell the whole story of everything that happened. There was a violent insurrection and an attempted coup and we were saved by Mike Pence’s refusal to go along with that plan.”

Wait, what?  Saved by Mike Pence?

To be fair, I can remember feeling sort of satisfied at the time that Pence had finally stood up to his boss (I think there was some mention of overcoming obsequiousness in there) and refused to take part in such a blatantly illegal plan—a coup.  But I hadn’t considered that maybe we all owe Pence more of a debt than we realized.  Earlier this week MSNBC’s Chris Hayes laid out this interpretation.

I’m eager to see the evidence.  I’m eager to get on with it!  Not to rush to judgment, mind you, but it’s been almost 16 months: the legislative branch and the Justice Department and the court system have got to nail the people responsible for this illegal power grab, and do it soon…or we may find those traitors may be back in power in Washington and in a position to protect themselves forever.  We’ve got to take action to punish those who deserve punishment, and stand up to the haters.

None of the mechanisms to deter a rogue president would work to restrain a reelected Trump.

On that note, I was invigorated last week to stumble across a speech by Michigan state senator Mallory McMorrow.  In retaliation for her support of LGBTQ issues, one of her “colleagues” embraced the popular new right-wing slur by accusing McMorrow of “grooming” children for sexual exploitation.  In a fundraising message.  No evidence provided, of course.  But McMorrow didn’t just take it, or shrug it off; in less than five minutes she sent a positive message that hits the haters right between the eyes.

“Hate will only win if people like me stand by and let it happen.”

I want to take a lesson from Mallory McMorrow, and not to afraid to call them like I see them.  We need to make it OK again to say the truth that we see.  It’s how we can defeat the haters.

Democrats Ask if They Should Hit Back Harder Against the G.O.P.

If I had a nickel for every time I was asked that

There’s a lot of bad news out there these day:

  • Ukraine is being assaulted hour after hour, unprovoked; millions of its citizens are refugees, thousands are dead, Putin’s Russian army commits war crimes against a helpless civilian population,
  • and a former American president, the one that a federal judge publicly says has “more likely than not” committed a federal crime related to his on-going lie to the world at large about the integrity of the 2020 election, chooses just this moment to suggest that the Russian war criminal in chief should supply information on an imaginary crime by the son of the current president
  • that former president is the whining, pouting poster boy for the current wave of a revolting trend of the rich and famous being treated like they’re above the law; they are not, and the sooner that we see signs that Donald Trump and Mark Meadows and Ginni Thomas and the others (and you know who they are) are being investigated for the crimes that they appear to have committed, then the sooner the rest of America will stop believing that justice is for sale
  • (a bit of encouraging news on this front: a judge has held certifiable bad actor Alex Jones in contempt for refusing to comply with court orders to be deposed by the families of Sandy Hook shooting victims who are suing him for defamation for his despicable insistence (since recanted) that the whole thing was staged—step in the right direction!)
  • Bruce Willis is suffering from aphasia, a medical condition impacting his cognitive abilities to the extent that he’s announced he is giving up acting
  • in what should be no surprise to any sentient being anywhere, a medical clinical trial has found no sign—no sign at all—that there is any medical benefit whatever from the use of the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin as a treatment for COVID-19; woe be to the masking-and-testing deniers who were confident that unconventional therapy was the only kind worth trying

Pick up any newspaper or news app and you’re sure to find more of the same.  It’s discouraging.  It’s depressing.  It’s all real and it’s out there, and it feels like it’s coming in here, where I’m trying to stay safe and warm.  But something else entirely has really got me wondering about the sanity of the world out there, something that’s not in the papers.

Earlier this week I stopped at a local franchise of a national fast food restaurant for lunch, and the total was $9.95; I fished out a five and five ones and handed them to the young man at the cash register.  Yeah, he looked at me sideways a little, I think, probably for having the audacity to pay the tab with folding money instead of my debit card…reminded me of the times I’ve faced a teenager at the till who’s had a helluva time counting out the right change.  But not this guy; he knew precisely what was owed back, and he fished a single coin out of the drawer and held it up to show me, and he said, “Do you want the five cents back?”

Do I want the five cents back?  Do I want MY five cents back?  As my father might have said in such a circumstance, is the pope a Catholic?  Does a bear live in the woods?  Why wouldn’t I want my five cents back?  It is, after all, my five cents.  I can’t get a gumball for a nickel like I used to—it isn’t even made of much nickel any more—but it is still negotiable currency.  He didn’t ask if I wanted to donate the change to a charity, and he didn’t say (in so many words) that he meant to keep it for himself.  He seemed to sincerely just want to know if I wanted to even be bothered dropping the coin in my pocket.

What would you say to a question like that?

How P.J. O’Rourke helped me understand life, one week after he died

It’s been a particularly busy time for me lately.  I don’t know if it’s an increased rate of work-related nonsense, or the pounds of mail I’m sorting through each day from friendly, helpful folks who just want to make sure I’m aware of the value of their particular Medicare supplement plan, but it feels like I’m never getting in front of things.  Not even on top of them, really; more just hoping to hold on and be dragged along.  It was already midday today, after a morning physical at the doctor’s and a trip to the office to refresh my memory of how to get there, when I got to the morning paper and found this essay by Christopher Buckley on his friend, the conservative writer, satirist and commentator P.J. O’Rourke, who passed away last week.

I recall first noticing the name P.J. O’Rourke in the masthead and bylines in National Lampoon of the mid 1970s.  Among that group of friends, we believed NatLamp in this time to be the funniest thing alive, or National_Lampoon_(magazine)_cover_–_January_1973perhaps ever to have lived, and certainly that ever would live, and any of the persons who was writing what we were reading there was a gift from the cosmos.  Because it was always funny, and because its targets were everyone and everything, no sacred cows allowed, I assumed that all those people writing those things must surely believe in all the things I believed in.  It was at first a great surprise to me years later (the 80s or 90s) when I read something by O’Rourke and realized he had been a conservative all those years before; according to his Wikipedia entry, “Many of O’Rourke’s essays recount that during his student days he was a leftist, anti-war hippie, but that in the 1970s his political views underwent a volte-face. He emerged as a political observer and humorist rooted in libertarian conservatism.”

O’Rourke’s political philosophies weren’t in lockstep with either of the major political parties in this country.  Clearly not a Democrat, but he did not offer non-critical obeisance to the Republicans, either: as Buckley notes, O’Rourke believed Hillary Clinton was “wrong ‘about absolutely everything,’ except in one regard: She wasn’t Donald Trump.”  That’s pretty much why I voted for her in 2016, too, and have felt like I’ve been dogged by Joe Btfsplk’s cloud ever since when it comes to questions of politics and government.

Buckley says “P.J. O’Rourke’s death marks the end of a particular and an essential sensibility. He found humor everywhere and in everything, especially in his PJORourke-tributes-newsfellow Republicans,” and he makes a good case for today’s Republicans having no sense of humor at all.  I agree: how could anyone who takes Donald Trump seriously see the humor in anything else?  But it was this line from Buckley that really caught me: “The Trump era could have been one great big enormous sandbox for P.J. to play in. Instead, he found it dispiriting, a pageant of stupidity, boorishness and coarseness.”

Dispiriting.  A pageant of stupidity, boorishness and coarseness.  Gawd, how on the nose.  Thank you, P.J. O’Rourke, for inspiring your friend Christopher Buckley to put into words the feelings I’ve been fighting for years now.