Saturday, June 15, 2013

Good news from Iran . . . but not THAT good.

Iran had a presidential election yesterday, with about five candidates running that had been approved by the clerics who have ultimate power.   The leading reform candidate, who would have given real hope to those opposed to the iron rule of the clerics, had been denied a place on the ballot by the powers that be.

At first there was talk of boycotting the election;  but then the opposition got behind Hassan Rowhani as the least of the bad, as in the least hard-line of a conservative field of approved candidates.

It came as a bit of surprise then that Rowhani won with more than 50% of the vote, making a runoff unnecessary.  

Since the president does not have much power to change policies, what is probably more important is not that this particular man was elected but the size of the voter turnout and the decisive expression of support for more liberal policies

It was in effect a strong vote for reform in a system that is geared to stifle real reform.

Whether this will affect policies at all, or how much, really rests with the ruling clerics and how much they're willing to let the people influence the government.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Churches and homosexuality

Here on the same day, news about disparate churches and homosexuality.

#1.   Pope Francis acknowledged that there is a "gay lobby" within the Vatican.   What does that mean?   He didn't spell it out, but apparently it is a well-known secret that there are gay priests within the Vactican heirarchy.

Questions now arise:   Is this part of why the church's action initially was to protect the priests more than the victims?   Are they subject to blackmail from outsiders because of their secret?    Was Pope Benedict involved in some way, and did this contribute to his sudden retirement?

#2.  Now that the Boy Scouts of American endorses welcoming gay boys into the troops as members, though not adult leaders, some of the protestant churches that have sponsored scout troops are severing ties with BSA and the local troops.   Two big Atlanta area churches have notified their affiliated troops that they will not renew their charter.

An AJC article this morning says that these ousted troops will not lack for other religious groups coming forward with offers of sponsorship -- more than enough, it seems.

The message to take from both these news items is the same:   It is the attitude about homosexuality that is the problem, not the fact of gay identity and gay love.   The so-called gay lobby in the Vatican would be no big deal, in fact it wouldn't be a "lobby" at all if homosexuality were not condemned.

Scout troops that relax and accept all boys, with all their budding sexuality and confusion and angst, will soon find that it's no big deal.   Worried about what's going to happen in those tents after lights out?    Get over it.   Teen age boys have been fooling around with their friends for millemia;  most of them grow up to be straight.  The ones who grow up to be gay didn't get that way because of what happened on a scouting overnight.   Homophobic straights (or closeted gays who can't accept their own sexual desires) are the ones who make it a problem.

The bottom line:   In neither case is homosexuality the problem.   Gay men are not inherently predatory any more than straight men.   Nor are they any less committed to the welfare of boys placed in their trust.   Nor are they less qualified to help them develop into mature young men of good character and life skills.

Get over it.   The young people have been immersed in a non-heterosexist and non-homophobic culture.  Because they have come to know gays as friends and brothers, they don't feel threatened by their presence and have no trouble accepting them.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The big paradox

It makes no sense, this big paradox in conservatives' (non)thinking.

1.  They oppose background checks for gun purchasers on the grounds that it is in infringement on the right to privacy.

And, at the same time:

2.  They support allowing the NSA to collect phone and email records of everybody, without concern about an infringement on the right to privacy.

Go figure.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Two whistle-blowers

Not everyone took the weekend off.   Two whistle-blowers were on duty with regards to the scandals swirling around our government.

First, Edward Snowden requested that the Guardian release his identify as the NSA whistleblower.   He was a former CIA technical assistant who had been employed for about four years by a private firm under contract with NSA.   Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong before revealing his identity, says he did it as an act of conscience "to protect the basic liberties for people around the world."

Now perhaps we will have this national debate about privacy vs safety.   In the meantime, an elaborate, costly program that many senators in the know say has helped avert terrorist attacks has been rendered less effective.    But do we really need that level of scrutiny to prevent a relatively small number of deaths?   (See previous post:   "All the infrastructure . . ")

On the other hand, 9/11 did far more to this country than the 3,000 people who lost their lives.  But how much of "what it did" was our (understandable) over-reaction out of fear?

Second, the IRS non-scandal still creaks along, kept alive by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and his House investigative committee.   Perhaps the worst job in Washington belongs to the ranking Democratic member of that committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD).

Issa had previously released an excerpt from the hearings on the IRS matter which stated that "some IRS workers believed that the targeting of Tea Party groups was being directed by officials in Washington."   No evidence or documentation was supplied.  That's all Issa wants to hear.  End of discussion.  It's all Obama's doing.

Cummings has called on Issa to release the entire transcript rather than selected portions that fit his agenda.    Lacking that, Cummings has now released his own excerpted portion, which concerns the testimony of a manager in the Cincinnati IRS office.   He says that it was he, not the White House, who set the extra scrutiny in motion.   One of his workers brought him an application from a Tea Party group that he felt should be investigated further for political activity.   He tagged the application and notified the Washington office.  That is what set it in motion.

The manager's personal political stance:   He's a conservative Republican who says he was doing his job, and it was not politically motivated.

Thanks to Cummings, we now know that, if there's any political perfidity going on here, it's in the person of Darrell Issa himself.


Sunday, June 9, 2013

"All the infrastructure a tyrant would need"

ShrinkRap posts have become long recently, trying to get some clarity about the struggle between protecting our individual rights and protecting our physical safety.  At the risk of running off any few remaining readers, this article from the Atlantic magazine by Conor Friedersdorf, "All the Infrastructure a Tyrant Would Need," is a must read.  It made me stop and reconsider where I was leaning in this argument -- especially one of his last points about "balancing the very rights of our Constitution against a threat with an infinitesimal chance of killing any one of us."

In other words, I had been thinking of it as a more or less even balance between personal freedom and personal safety.   This reframes that as constitutionally guaranteed basic rights vs a very very small likelihood of harm from terrorists.   Here is a condensed version of the Atlantic article:

"Let's assume that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, their staffers, and every member of Congress for the last dozen years has always acted with pure motives in the realm of national security . . .  and that Americans are lucky to have had men and women so moral, prudent, and incorruptible in charge.

". . .  [but] The American people have no idea who the president will be in 2017. Nor do we know who'll sit on key Senate oversight committees, who will head the various national-security agencies. . 

"What we know is that the people in charge will possess the capacity to be tyrants -- to use power oppressively and unjustly -- to a degree that Americans in 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, or 2000 could've scarcely imagined. To an increasing degree, we're counting on having angels in office and making ourselves vulnerable to devilsBush and Obama have built infrastructure any devil would lust after. Behold the items on an aspiring tyrant's checklist that they've provided their successors:
  • A precedent that allows the president to kill citizens in secret without prior judicial or legislative review
  • The power to detain prisoners indefinitely without charges or trial
  • Ongoing warrantless surveillance on millions of Americans accused of no wrongdoing, converted into a permanent database so that data of innocents spied upon in 2007 can be accessed in 2027
  • Using ethnic profiling to choose the targets of secret spying, as the NYPD did with John Brennan's blessing
  • Normalizing situations in which the law itself is secret -- and whatever mischief is hiding in those secret interpretations
  • The permissibility of droning to death people whose identities are not even known to those doing the killing
  • The ability to collect DNA swabs of people who have been arrested even if they haven't been convicted of anything
  • A torture program that could be restarted with an executive order
"Even if you think Bush and Obama exercised those extraordinary powers responsibly, what makes you think every president would? . . 

"Perhaps Congress would assert itself. Perhaps the people would rise up. Then again, perhaps it would be too late by the time the abuses were evident. (America has had horrific abuses of power in the past under weaker executives who were less empowered by technology; and numerous other countries haven't recognized tyrants until it was too late.) 
" . . . we're allowing ourselves to become a nation of men, not laws. . 

"This isn't an argument about how tyranny is inevitable. . . .  We have safeguards . . .  Stop casting them off because you fear al-Qaeda. Stop tempting fate.

"Stop acting like the president takes an oath to keep us safe, when his job is to protect and defend the Constitution. Doing so keeps the American project safe. . . .  And we're so risk-averse . . . that we're "balancing" the very rights in our Constitution against a threat with an infinitesimal chance of killing any one of us . . .  [Here the author points out that, even if we had a 9/11 attack every year, the probability of death from these attacks for each person, each year, is about 0.001%.] . . . This is why we're letting the government build an Orwellian spy state more sophisticated than any in history? . . . 

"I am not saying that terrorism poses no threat -- of course it does. Of course we ought to dedicate substantial resources to preventing all the attacks that can be stopped without violating our founding documents, laws, values, or sense of proportion. For the national-security state, loosed of the Constitution's safeguards, is a far bigger threat to liberty than al-Qaeda will ever be. . . . "


PS:  On reflecting a bit, this is the purist argument, and part of me cheers.   On the other hand, we live in a political world.  Just imagine that Obama did not take every legal opportunity to prevent an attack, and then we had another major attack.  Would the Republicans just sympathize and say, "Well, our guy Bush didn't even respond to the CIA's telling him an attack was imminent . . . so we won't hold this against you"?   I think not.  They would run political campaigns about the Democrats being weak on national defense for the next decade.     The American public -- inflamed by our ratings-hungry media -- may just not be mature enough to have a democracy.