A Time for Silence

President Obama should not speak in support of the Iranians protesting the recent presidential elections.  In fact, no US official, in power or out of it, should publicly support them.

First, it’s redundant.  Is there any doubt that anyone in Iran (much less, the world) knows whose side the Americans are on in this conflict?  A diverse population, young and old, rich and poor, clergy and laity, Persian and Arab, male and female, are uniting in peaceful protest in the streets of Iran’s major cities, marching in silence against corruption and violence in their electoral system.  The protests echo the footsteps on US-80 to Montgomery, and earlier ones to the sea at Dandi.  It is a movement that is growing exponentially by the day, with almost 3 million people reported at rallies today to mourn those murdered by the Basij for participating.  Is there even a chance that the world might question, especially in light of recent clashes with Ahmadenijad, what outcome American leaders favor?

Second, it would undermine the movement.  The election wasn’t about American-Iranian relations.  The protests don’t even represent a massive ideological divide in the Iranian electorate.  As many commentators have observed, Mousavi’s policies aren’t dramatically dissimilar to those of Ahmadenijad.  This movement is about political legitimacy.  Iran is an illiberal democracy, a system with the trappings and functions of a democratic state but without the guaranteed civil rights and civil liberties necessary to maintain a true democracy.  The Guardian Council decides who may or may not run for office, but the Iranian people expect that the elections themselves will be legitimately decided by the voters.

This election was obviously and audaciously rigged.  The movement is a genuine, grassroots rejection of the results by the electorate.  Already, the Iranian government is attempting to prove that the U.S. and Israel are behind the protests, to discredit this as genuine outrage on behalf of the citizens of Iran.  We must not lend aid to that attempt at propaganda.  We must not cut the legs out from under our brothers and sisters who refuse to be silenced.  Our speech would silence them in their own country.

Third, it would endanger the protesters.  Ahmadenijad was elected by the skin of his teeth in 2005.  His popularity has declined as he failed to make good on any of his campaign promises.  The only popularity he seems able to retain in the electorate is what he gets from being an outspoken opponent of the U.S.  The more we oppose him, the more powerful he gets.  Some analysts have even speculated that he would have no power at all in Iran if not for the Bush administration’s rhetoric.  The rhetoric was intended to call him out, but some argue that it merely gave him legitimacy within the country (especially since U.S. statements rarely distinguished Ahmadenijad from the rest of Iran).

If President Obama speaks out against Ahmadenijad and the Supreme Leader’s decision to ignore the will of the people, he will only help those in power cling to it more desperately.  It could allow the government to become more brutal in its attempts to suppress the protests, casting the violence in the language of struggle against U.S. imperialism.  We must protect those who are willing to lay down their lives for freedom.  Sometimes that means not saying things that make us feel better about ourselves.

What can we do instead?  This is a time for the people of America to act on behalf of their leaders.  If you’re not on twitter, sign up here. Follow #iranelection or #gr88 to find out what’s going on.  Change your location to Tehran and your time zone to GMT +3.30 to help confuse Iranian authorities who are trying to arrest protesters.  Visit this Guide to the Cyberwar site for more information on how to help (and not accidentally hurt) the Iranians’ fight for freedom.

And pray.  As our own Rachel Motte so elegantly said, the sons of Isaac pray for the sons of Ishmael, for we all come from the same father. ‘

An Exciting Day for the Judicial Branch

This morning dawned with the Obama administration’s announcement of his nominee for Justice Souter’s replacement.  The well-managed leaks from the West Wing made sure Sonia Sotomayor’s name was already familiar in the press, but commentators have found plenty to discuss on air anyway.  It seems the old partisan battlelines are being drawn, though as some have said (including our very own Dr. John Mark Reynolds), the GOP would be wise to save its limited political capital for another fight.  There will be plenty of those!

Judge Sotomayor is a brilliant choice for Obama’s first nominee to the Supreme Court.  Though many on the Right will try to paint her as a radical liberal loose constructionist, her record shows Sotomayor is an experienced, methodical judge who painstakingly examines the intricacies of the law.  While she enthusiastically advocates an interpretation of the law that promotes equality in cases of race and gender discrimination, her ruling from the bench has demonstrated her work as a jurist who considers each case on its own terms.  She has frequently left idealism aside in order to reach a decision that accurately applies the principles of the law.

A lot will be said about comments Judge Sotomayor made at a 2005 panel discussion at Duke University Law School, which have been circulating on YouTube ever since her name was mentioned in a pool of likely candidates for nomination:

All of the legal defense funds out there, they’re looking for people with court-of-appeals experience, because it is – court of appeals is where policy is made.  I know this is on tape, and I should never say that, because we don’t make law, I know. [The audience laughs.] OK, I know, I know. I’m not promoting it, I’m not advocating it, I’m, you know. Um. OK.

It lacks eloquence, as off-the-cuff remarks often do, and seems to advocate unbridled judicial power.  The trouble with using this statement to prove Sotomayor is a radical revisionist who legislates from the bench is twofold.  First, her record simply doesn’t show that’s the case.  Second, it’s just a little civics 101.  Someone, usually the White House, proposes policy.  Congress enacts legislation to put that policy in action.  The Executive Branch, usually the bureaucracy, executes that policy.  But in the policymaking process, the courts determine what the law says.  That interpretation determines what the policy looks like in practice.  Instead of fearing a radical jurist, we should be delighted that a nominee to the Supreme Court recognizes that power and, so far, has cautiously exercised that power.  Let’s hope for a quick confirmation full of excellent debate over constitutional interpretation!

Of course, the more exciting judicial news of the day came around 10am Pacific time from the California Supreme Court.  In a six-to-one majority, the Court upheld the voter-approved ballot initiative to ban gay marriage, Proposition 8.  Immediately upon receiving the news, scores of protestors crowded the streets of San Francisco and other California cities, railing against the blow to human rights and calling the justices all manner of names.

Regardless of where you stand on gay marriage, however, you have to accept the legality of the situation.  The California Supreme Court wasn’t asked to rule on gay marriage at all.  In fact, its previous ruling on the subject, In re Marriage Cases in June of 2008, overturned voter initiative Proposition 22, a 2000 ballot initiative that defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman.  Likewise, the 2008 ruling precipitated Proposition 8, which amended California’s constitution to prevent same-sex marriage.  The question before the Court for today’s decision was simply whether or not the Constitution had been legally amended by voter initiative.  Was it an amendment, which the California constitution allows voters to determine in general election, or was it a revision, which is a legislative matter?

The question came to whether or not Proposition 8 was presented to voters in the right form, and whether or not it substantially changes the constitution’s equal protection provisions.  The Court decided today not for or against gay marriage, but that the authors of Prop 8 had done their homework while drafting the amendment.  Unfortunately, it was not in the Court’s jurisdiction to decide whether or not it’s idiotic to allow 50.1% of voters to substantially amend the state’s constitution.

Gay marriage proponents vow tonight that the fight isn’t over.  For now, in California, it seems it may be.  Much more substantial changes need to be made to the method of constitutional amendment, or a small percentage of the electorate must be convinced to overturn the amendment in the next election for anything to change.  After all, Prop 8 passed by a margin that was hardly decisive.  But even then, the fight won’t end here.  Ultimately, gay marriage is a federal issue, and must be decided by the Supreme Court.  It is the ‘full faith and credit’ clause, not any lingering moral code set forth by the Framers that pushes the argument into the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction.  And, it seems with the recent action on the issue in Iowa, Washington D.C., New York, and elsewhere, we won’t be able to ignore the federal battle for much longer.  The state initiatives are just a prelude to the moral conversation we must have on the issue.  Its outcome will determine who we are. ‘

Souter! Souter!

This blog is founded upon the principal that two political opponents can come to the truth through intelligent (though heated!) conversation.  We founded that idea on an episode of Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” in which President Bartlett appoints both Evelyn Baker Lang and Christopher Mulready, a fierce liberal and conservative respectively, to the Court.

So, what do we think about the announcement that Justice Souter will step down in June?  Who should Obama appoint to fill his seat?  Will this be the beginning of a slew of retirements from the elderly liberal justices on the Court (because let’s face it, you know several of them were just hanging on until a Democrat was in the White House!)?  Is ideological balance an ideal for the Court, or was Sorkin crazy?  What’s more important: fierce ideological debate on the Court, or uniform ideology that accomplishes your judicial agenda?  Which is more dangerous?

Let the debate begin!

~Lang ‘

Tea and let them eat cake

Happy Tax Day, all!

Whether you’ve chosen to observe the day by dutifully filing your taxes, sending in an actual paper check to the government through the US Postal Service (how delightful antiquated of you!), or held a tea party to protest government infringement of your liberty, we wish you a wonderful day!

And though we know you really want to watch us go back and forth on whether or not President Obama handled the Somali pirate incident well, or if Senator McCain really did diss Governor Palin on Leno, today we want to hear from you.

Taxes: good?  bad?  necessary?

Whether you want to rant and rail, discuss your utopian ideal, or speculate on President Obama’s promised overhaul of our “monstrous” tax code, start speculating in our comments section!

Please!  The long absence of posts is mostly due to the fact that (1) we’re both full time teachers and it’s AP test season right now and (2) Lang’s master’s thesis is due on 1 May and she’s been shackled to her Word files for weeks.  Give us a distraction! ‘

Calling on Mulready

I’ve posted my response to the Honorable Justice Mulready’s question ‘What is the right to life?’, and we’ve had a lively debate in the comments on the post.  I’d love to hear more of your thoughts (and debate Mulready a bit more!), but I’m also interested in his definition of the next inalienable right.

I must admit, I feel a little awkward initiating the disucssion at this point.  This morning, my pastor wisely (and rightly!) reminded us that the Declaration of Independence is not perfectly sound theology.  The inalienable three, while good guides for a secular government, are not the highest calling of Christians.  Paul’s exhortation in II Corinthians 4:17 that “our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” is a much better guide for our action.

But we’re talking of a secular state.  So I ask Mulready, as we continue our conversation of the right to life, what would you define as the right to liberty? ‘

Above my pay grade

Yes, the title is a cheap joke.  But I’m in the midst of submitting grades for the quarter, maintaining props for a major theatre production, and writing a thesis for my graduate degree, so I’m in need of some frivolity.  And I am, as a historian, merely a social scientist, living in a culture that values only hard science.

Mulready asks ‘what is the right to life?’  My concise answer: a lot more than the pro-life movement champions.

I was in DC for the inauguration, and on the day when my students and I were scheduled to meet our local House representative on Capitol Hill, the annual March for Life crowded the National Mall.  We arrived just in time for the scheduled concert, and even joined with the various groups marching for the cause of the unborn.

It burdened my heart, however, to see something ugly in that march for what I believe in.  The hateful manner of those marching had nothing to do with the cause of life.  Yes, abortion is the greatest evil of our generation, and yes, it deserves nothing but contempt.  But if we truly care about saving lives, we must change our approach.  Hate only breeds hate.  Grace is transformative, and only grace toward the opposition will change hearts and minds.

Okay, rhetorical critique aside, the question is: what is the right to life?  I have to answer with a quotation from my favorite children’s novel, because it’s in children’s stories we can most clearly see the truth.  We lie to ourselves, but not to our children, which is our saving grace.

At the end of Johnny Tremain, Esther Forbes puts a critical line into the mouth of Rab, the revolutionary hero wounded in battle who Johnny idolizes.  When asked what his sacrifice is for, Rab responds: That a man can stand up.  It’s a simple phrase, but it ecompasses great truth.

The right to life must ensure that the weak among us survive.  Darwinism was an attempt to explain observed phenomena, not an attempt to define right action for a species’ survival.  It cannot guide human action.  Of course, I’m presupposing the existence of the soul, but this is a political discussion, not yet a metaphysical one.  With that assumption, however, every human life is precious.  The unborn, who live but live within the protection of a womb, must be protected and nurtured, whether through natural or artificial means.  The weak, the ill, the elderly, must be allowed the best care possible.  We cannot lock them away in substandard care facilities, or sequester them from human society due to inconvenience.

But these should not be controversial (and if they are, I’m writing a thesis on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, so don’t give me an opportunity to unleash my research on that slippery slope here!).  I think, however, that Mulready and I might not find common ground in my next point.

A system that promotes exploitation cannot claim to be a system that fosters the right to life.

Capitalism is a flawed economic system.  Our democratic republic falls into the same moral trap.  Though some (including my esteemed colleague) might claim that it offers maximum freedom and therefore offers the most opportunity to men to act on their greatest virtues, it also rewards those who trample people on their own path to power.  Class warfare aside, what this leads to is a direct violation of the right to life.  Let me illustrate my point with a personal story.

My mother’s mother smoked like a chimney.  Everyone in her generation did, and she was a model and a local talk show host, so she had an image to maintain.  Eventually that led to cancer, as it always seems to do.  Grandma Junie didn’t have health insurance (few did at the time).  When it became apparent she was in serious medical trouble, she tried to purchase it.  The law, on the other hand, in the interest of the free market, allowed health insurance companies to act as they saw fit.  They saw fit not in the interest of aiding the sick, but rather in aiding their pocket books.  They had the power to deny my grandmother treatment due to her ‘pre-existing condition.’  Before they would insure her, they claimed, she would need to go without treatment for six months.  Because she was not independently wealthy, she did.

It killed her.  My grandma Junie died of bone cancer, which had matastasized from lung cancer to breast cancer to bone cancer in the six months without treatment.  On the day of her death, she sneezed and broke ribs from the force of it.  It was painful, degrading, and completely unnecessary.

Did my grandmother kill herself by smoking cigarettes?  Without engaging in a debate on the ethics of the tobacco lobby’s advertising, I’ll admit yes, she did.  Did that justify this painful, humiliating death?  I can’t see how it did.

I realize this is an extremely personal example, and I’ve had more than one person tell me that they literally couldn’t argue with me because I had such a personal, emotional connection to it.  But isn’t that just avoiding the point?  People die because we venerate the free market over human experience.  People suffer so we can retain our economic freedom.

This isn’t the right to life.  It’s the right to stuff.

The last thing Mulready asked was about the government’s right to take a life.  This is hard for me.  I have a rather violent personality.  An eye for an eye makes a lot of sense to me, and grace seems strange.  As a historian, I’m fairly well-acquainted with what evils man is capable of committing.  And that leads me to crave violence in response.  That’s why I don’t let myself see movies like Taken or Last House on the Left.

Why?  Because I know the Gospel is more powerful than my desire for vengeance.  It makes no earthly sense to me, but the sacrifice of Alban, whose head was displayed on the battlements of a Roman fort, means more than a father’s brutal vengeance of his daughter’s abuse.  I want to cheer on Liam Neeson in Taken, but it is more True to pray for the transformation of the villain.  I want catharsis – Christ offers regeneration.

Should the state kill its citizens for the sake of the safety of the rest of them?  Pragmatically, yes.  But I’ve never been a pragmatist.  Killing the enemy doesn’t make anyone truly safe.  Transforming him into a friend does.  As a Christian, I believe this is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit, but the moment we adminster the lethal injection, or fire the bullet at the terrorist, we end the possibilty that the transformation will ever occur.  And, given the fallibility of the state, the idea of denying that possiblity in even one life frightens me.

What is the right to life?  It is, first of all, the right to the vital elements that sustain it: food, shelter, air, and the like.  But in a bountiful country such as ours, it is also the faciliation of that life.  It is its protection economic, environmental, medical and otherwise.  It is the encouragement of a system that recongnizes these needs and promotes their exercise.

Yes, that’s vague.  Necessarily so.  But we must do it, so ‘a man can stand up.’ ‘

Take It From Lincoln

My esteemed colleague has posited the question of all questions: what is the purpose of government?  Nothing like a nice, light inquiry to start things here, eh?

I take the basic premise of my answer from the Gettysburg Address.  It seems to be a safe bet, to start.  After all, slap our 16th president’s name on the cover, and a history book will shoot to the bestseller list in a flash.  In seriousness, Lincoln delivered the most succinct, beautiful description of our government in one brief phrase.  Our government is ‘of the people, by the people, for the people.’

In order to appreciate its beauty, we have remember how it was delivered (according to eyewitness reports).  Today, even Disney’s late Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln presented it with the wrong emphasis.  We tend to focus on the prepositions, probably because they’re what changes and they automatically draw our attention.  But Mr. Lincoln didn’t deliver the speech that way.  He emphasized the most important part of the phrase: the repeated noun.

Government is of, by and for the people.  And I’m sure this isn’t a controversial statement on its surface.  But as I’ve explored its implications, I find it leads me into opposition with my conservative friends.  I understand the minimalist approach to government, that it exists solely to guarantee our security and freedom, and that it works best when it steps aside to allow people to be their best, unhindered by government intervention.  I agree that in some cases, this is the best possible role for the government to play.

But it’s not always the right role, and quite often, it’s the worst.

A government established of the people must take its orders from the people.  Their values must shape its actions.  While that requires a firm foundation that binds the people together as a community, it also requires a level of flexibility as that community grows and changes.  The America of 1789 is not the America of 2009.  That shouldn’t distress us too greatly.  We’ve rejected slavery, institutionalized misogyny, class-based elitism and many more evils.  It should distress us a little.  We’ve embraced evils our Framers never dreamed were possible, from abortion to the atom bomb.  But in all of this, our government still represents us, the living who live in the legacy of the past.  It’s the struggle to reject what’s bad of our past and embrace what’s good of our present that keeps its role in motion.

A government established by the people must act in the people’s best interest.  Sometimes that interest is to stand aside and wait to be called into action.  Sometimes, that role is to intervene, to defend its people not just from external threats, but also from themselves.  Lest you think I’m advocating an Orwellian Big Brother, let me clarify something.

Government works best when it encourages its people to be good.  Government can never take the place of the true source of Good, and cannot be trusted to define that Good either, but that is no excuse for government to remain morally neutral.  Just as it must step aside to allow religious organizations to act charitably without hindrance, it must intervene when strong members of society exploit the weak.  And it should never facilitate that exploitation.

And government is for the people.  Its purpose must be to facilitate the success of its citizens, financially, politically, personally – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (of course in the Aristotelian sense).  If government regulation hinders that success, it must be examined.  If its absence hinders that success, it deserves the same scrutiny.  The needs of the Wall Street executive must be tempered by the needs of the homeless veteran.  We can’t reject either for the sake of the other.

Because government isn’t an institution.  It’s people.  People designed its structure, and people enact its policies.  There’s nothing faceless about it.  It cannot stand aside and only intervene when faced with foreign invasion or the latest crime wave because government is the people.  And while it can’t take the place of a church when it comes to moral guidance, or a school when it comes to education, it can’t be separated from them either.  Our president attended our schools, and our congressmembers attend our churches.

So what is the purpose of government?

That’s a very good question. ‘