Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

In “Religious Freedom vs. Individual Equality” Mr. Blow is posing a question:  What to do when people want to retain their right to discriminate — wrapped in the cloak of piety — after most of the country has lost the appetite for it?  Mr. Cohen may or may not have lost his mind.  In “The Order in Saigon’s Chaos” he tries to convince us that Vietnam’s free-for-all traffic might be madness, but there’s equal madness in the West’s safety obsessions.  Mr. Kristof says “A Nuclear Deal With Iran Isn’t Just About Bombs,” and that this is also a chance for creating the conditions to bring Iran out of the cold.  But, but, but…  if we bring them in out of the cold then how the hell can we bomb the crap out of them like Billy “Always Wrong All The Time” Kristol wants to?  In “Indiana Loses Its Game” Ms. Collins says the Hoosier State is in a mess, and its residents should feel free to blame their governor.  Why the hell should they?  They’re the ones who elected him…  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Indiana’s governor is now vowing to “clarify” a religious freedom law he recently signed in that state, because of what he calls a “perception problem” about whether the legislation would allow open discrimination against people whose sexual identities defy the heteronormative construct.

In truth, there is no perception problem. There was a detection problem: People detected precisely what the bill was designed to do, and they objected. And, possibly more important than individuals’ objections, were the objections of big business like Apple and Angie’s List.

Rather than simply protecting the free exercise of religion, the bill provides the possibility that religion could be used as a basis of discrimination against some customers.

One Indiana pizzeria, asserting that it is “a Christian establishment,” has already said that it will not cater gay weddings: “If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no.” By the way, is wedding pizza a thing in Indiana? Just asking…

Objections to the law, which is repulsive and deserving of all manner of reprobation, were swift and vociferous.

It is true that there is a federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as a version of it in some 20 states. But Indiana’s is different.

As Garrett Epps put it in The Atlantic:

“First, the Indiana law explicitly allows any for-profit business to assert a right to ‘the free exercise of religion.’ The federal R.F.R.A. doesn’t contain such language, and neither does any of the state R.F.R.A.s except South Carolina’s; in fact, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, explicitly exclude for-profit businesses from the protection of their R.F.R.A.s.”

He continues:

“Second, the Indiana statute explicitly makes a business’s ‘free exercise’ right a defense against a private lawsuit by another person, rather than simply against actions brought by government.”

This was a whole other animal and people recognized it.

Anything that even hints at state-sponsored discrimination — blatant and codified — is not only discordant with current cultural norms but also anathema to universal ideals of fairness and human dignity.

Walmart has slammed a similar law passed this week in Arkansas — where the behemoth retailer is headquartered — with the C.E.O. saying of the law that it “threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold.”

And according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette:

“Similar objections to HB1228 came from the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Little Rock Conventions and Visitors Bureau. The Arkansas Municipal League and the Association of Arkansas Counties have also opposed the legislation.”

To his credit, Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas — whose son asked him to veto the bill — called on the Legislature to recall or amend the bill, and said he was considering using an executive order that would make “Arkansas a place of tolerance.”

For the most part, though, the religious conservative wing of the Republican Party on this issue is rushing headlong into an unwinnable culture battle, or more precisely one that has already been fought and lost.

As Emily Swanson, writing for The Associated Press, put it last month:

“In the late 1980s, support for gay marriage was essentially unheard-of in America. Just a quarter-century later, it’s now favored by [a] clear majority of Americans. That dramatic shift in opinion is among the fastest changes ever measured by the General Social Survey, a comprehensive and widely respected survey that has measured trends [in] a huge array of American attitudes for more than four decades.”

While it is heartening to see these corporations rushing to voice their opposition to the measure, there is still something about it that feels slightly out of kilter: a moral issue being driven by consumerism considerations.

It was in many ways a battle between big business corporate image egalitarianism and small business fundamentalism and religious conservatism, with disgruntled consumers in the middle. Big business had more to lose by appearing intolerant than small businesses had to gain by hewing to an exclusionary holiness.

But aside from whether opposing these pieces of legislation buys good will as an exercise of good public relations, equal treatment is simply the appropriate moral position, now and forever.

These laws raise broad issues.

What to do when people want to retain their right to hate and to discriminate — even if they choose to couch it in fuzzy, nonconfrontational wording or wrap it in the flimsy cloak of piety — after most of the country has lost the appetite for it?

How does America move forward as a beacon of tolerance — some would argue this precept vehemently — while retaining such disproportionate rates of religiosity relative to other wealthy countries?

Where are the lines between religious rights, business rights and human rights?

I would argue that when you enter the sphere of commerce in America — regardless of your “deeply held religious beliefs” — you have entered a nondiscriminatory zone in which your personal beliefs are checked at the register, and each customer is treated equally.

This is not to say that a gay couple on the eve of commitment should want to patronize a bigoted baker for a wedding cake, but rather that the refusal to render services based on that bigotry is untenable.

And yet, as the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center put it last week in citing key findings from a 2015 working paper from Harvard Law School:

“While the First Amendment was intended to protect individual freedom of religion, speech and assembly, as well as a free press, corporations have begun to displace individuals as its direct beneficiaries. This ‘shift from individual to business First Amendment cases is recent but accelerating.’ ”

And last, it raises questions about where one person’s opinion should end and another’s personal liberty should take up.

Too many people in this country continue to have an unhealthy obsession with what other people do in their bedrooms rather than focusing on what they do — or don’t do — in their own.

Mind your own faith and your own business and allow other people to define their own relationships with a god, if he or she believes and chooses such a spiritual communion.

As Langston Hughes wrote in the poem “Personal”:

In an envelope marked:
Personal
God addressed me a letter.
In an envelope marked:
Personal
I have given my answer.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen, who probably doesn’t like to wear his seatbelt:

In Vietnam, where I recently spent a week, streets are a sea of scooters and small motorcycles. Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City if you insist, buzzes to the eddying of this two-wheeled tide. Entire families perch themselves on bikes, often with a small child up front who gets the best view, the hot breeze in her face and, of course, the least chance of emerging unscathed from a collision. Adults wear helmets; children and live animals do not.

Along with the living — a chicken or piglet perhaps — various things may be wedged at angles, including small refrigerators, potted plants, metal frames and bunches of bananas. Bikes, the cars of the newly affluent, and pedestrians weave around one another in a seamless pattern fashioned not by any rule or organizing principle but by individual awareness. Major intersections, unburdened by anything as cumbersome or inflexible as traffic lights, function as massive group exercises in tentative advance, the principle being to coax others to the prudence of the brake by nosing ahead with just the right dose of insistence. Lo, the sea divides. A path opens. There is no logic at work, but there is a great deal of humanity.

Madness might be a verdict on all this, but then to the average Vietnamese biker there might be equal madness to Western culture, hemmed in by all the controls that a combination of fear and technology produce. Surely there must be a happy medium between placing a toddler on the handlebars of a scooter and denying children the freedom to roam and discover that is essential to their development. Surely there is an appropriate balance between a free-for-all on the roads and a camera at every corner. But humanity tends to deal more in irrational exuberances than happy mediums. The pendulum swings too far.

In Britain, over-the-top safety obsessions have produced a society where cameras and so-called traffic-calming speed bumps are everywhere, visitors to churches and colleges are warned that medieval paving stones may be a little uneven, schoolchildren have been advised to wear goggles when using certain glues (and helmets under chestnut trees), trainee hairdressers are not allowed scissors in the classroom, and mail delivery gets suspended in an entire region if a postman slips and hurts his shoulder. David Cameron, the prime minister, spoke out five years ago against the health-and-safety culture that had produced “a stultifying blanket of bureaucracy, suspicion and fear that has saturated our country, covering the actions of millions of individuals.” Not much has changed.

Britain is only an extreme example of the broader phenomenon that can see the world’s greatest city, New York, shut down not by a snowstorm but by the possibility of a snowstorm (the blizzard that never happened); and the bizarre term “free-range parenting” applied to American moms and dads who believe their children should be allowed to walk home from school alone and play outside. Earlier this year a Maryland couple was found responsible for “child neglect” because they let kids walk home alone from a neighborhood park. Whatever happened to the land of the free and home of the brave?

I am not recommending that Western urban planners go to Vietnam to study traffic management. I am suggesting that developed Western societies, increasingly fear-driven, tend to fall into a nanny-state mind-set where health, safety and security must all be stringently regulated, adults are viewed as children, and the emotional intelligence of humanity is underestimated or discounted. To cross a highway in Saigon — perhaps with a wave here and there to remind onrushing scooters and cars of your existence — is to experience not just relief at reaching the other side, but wonderment at how unregulated people can work together.

The Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman was intrigued by this phenomenon. His “shared space” idea turned traditional thinking about road safety on its head. For much of the 20th century the assumption was that efficient traffic flow depended on a full separation of cars and pedestrians, complemented by traffic signals, signs, barriers and road markings that would keep people safe. The state took charge through regulation; the individual only had to obey instructions.

Monderman, who died in 2008, had other ideas. He wanted to raise collective awareness and responsibility by doing away with all that separateness, and he believed that safety might be increased by making all travelers intensely aware of one another. Cars, bicyclists and pedestrians would all move on a single curb-free surface, without sidewalks or signs. Sometimes he would test his schemes — developed in various Dutch, German and Scandinavian towns — by walking backward into dense traffic in a shared-space area. Of late the idea of “shared space” has even gained a foothold in London.

I recommend walking backward into a Saigon street, for the heck of it, but also to be reminded of the limits of regulation and the power of shared humanity.

Now we get to Mr. Kristof:

To prove that Americans can be every bit as crazy as Iranians, I took my daughter along on my last trip to Iran, in 2012, for a road trip across the country.

Iranians were stunned to see a 14-year-old Yankee teeny-bopper in their midst. In Mashhad, a conservative Islamic city that might seem wary of Americans, three Iranian women in black chadors accosted my daughter — and then invited her to a cafe where they plied her with ice cream, marveling at her and kissing her on the cheek as she ate.

They weren’t political, but they yearned for Iran to be a normal country again.

As the Iranian nuclear talks creep on into double overtime, let’s remember that this isn’t just about centrifuges but also about creating some chance over time of realigning the Middle East and bringing Iran out of the cold. It’s a long shot, yes, but it’s one reason Saudi Arabia is alarmed, along with Iranian hard-liners themselves. Those hard-liners survive on a narrative of conflict with the West, and depriving them of that narrative undermines them.

It’s odd to be debating a deal that hasn’t been reached, but, frankly, critics are mostly right in their specific objections to a deal, and in their aspirations for it.

“A better deal would significantly roll back Iran’s nuclear infrastructure,” noted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. “A better deal would link the eventual lifting of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program to a change in Iran’s behavior.”

All true. Of course, a better deal would also involve gifts of delicious Persian baklava for every American. And a pony.

Netanyahu also suggests that a deal would give “Iran’s murderous regime a clear path to the bomb.” That’s a fallacy.

Iran is already on a path to nuclear capability. Netanyahu should know, because he’s been pointing that out for more than two decades. Beginning in 1992, he asserted that Iran was three to five years from a nuclear capability. Over time, that dropped to “a year or two,” and then to “months.”

But even if Netanyahu’s warnings have been alarmist, he has a point: Iran is getting closer. The problem is that fulminations don’t constitute a policy.

The West essentially has three options:

■ We can try to obtain a deal to block all avenues to a bomb, uranium, plutonium and purchase of a weapon. This would allow Iran to remain on the nuclear path but would essentially freeze its progress — if it doesn’t cheat. To prevent cheating, we need the toughest inspections regime in history.

■ We can continue the sanctions, cyberwarfare and sabotage to slow Iran’s progress. This has worked better than expected, but it’s not clear that we have a new Stuxnet worm to release. And, partly because of congressional meddling, international support for sanctions may unravel.

■ We can launch military strikes on Natanz, Isfahan, Arak, Fordow and, possibly, Tehran. This would be a major operation lasting weeks. Strikes would take place in the daytime to maximize the number of nuclear scientists killed. All this would probably delay a weapon by one to three years — but it could send oil prices soaring, lead to retaliatory strikes and provoke a nationalistic backlash in support of the government.

Imagine if we had launched a military strike against Chinese nuclear sites in the 1960s. In that case, Beijing might still be ruled by Maoists.

On balance, with either the military option or the sanctions option, Iran probably ends up with a nuclear capability within a decade. With a nuclear deal, it’s just possible that we could prevent that from happening. Perhaps no deal is achievable; the Iranian side has been recalcitrant lately. In that case, we continue with sanctions and hope that the economic pressure further delegitimizes the government and eventually forces Iran back to the table.

But, again, this isn’t just about uranium but also about undermining an odious regime and creating the conditions for Iran to become a normal country. I’ve rarely been to a more pro-American country, at the grass-roots, and there’s a pent-up anger at corruption and hypocrisy. That doesn’t mean that there’s going to be a revolution anytime soon. But it means that there’s a chance for movement after the death of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 75 and underwent prostate surgery last year.

In the office of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, whom Khamenei edged out to be supreme leader, I was once jokingly introduced as coming from the “Great Satan.” An aide, referring to Iran’s own regime, immediately quipped: “America is only Baby Satan. We have Big Satan right here at home.”

So, sure, a nuclear deal carries risks and will be ugly and imperfect, but, on balance, it probably reduces the risk that Iran gets the bomb in the next 10 years. It may also, after Ayatollah Khamenei is gone, create an opportunity for Iran to end its chapter in extremism, so that the country is defined less by rapacious ayatollahs and more by those doting matrons in Mashhad.

Last but not least we get to Ms. Collins:

Last year Indiana chose “Honest to Goodness Indiana” as its new tourism slogan. Not everyone was charmed. Some critics said they’d have preferred something more cosmopolitan. Although it doesn’t seem likely they’d be happier with the runners-up, one of which was “Seasoned Just Right.”

Now, however, the slogan makes a kind of sense, especially if you throw in a little punctuation:

Honest to goodness, Indiana! Really, what were you thinking?

Last week, you may remember, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana signed a “religious freedom” law that was widely decried around the country as an attack on gay civil rights. One state business pulled the plug on a planned expansion in protest. Conferences were canceled, events called off. The N.C.A.A., which is based in Indianapolis, was looking extremely uneasy. Other states and cities began imposing Indiana travel bans.

This is the exact same thing that happened in Arizona a year before, except that the governor there responded to the outcry by vetoing the law. Nevertheless, the Republicans who run Indiana claimed they were shocked, shocked by these totally unexpected developments.

“We have suffered under this avalanche for the last several days of condemnation, and it’s completely baseless,” Pence complained to George Stephanopoulos on ABC on Sunday. It was very possibly one of the worst appearances by a governor in television history. The best Pence could do was to babble desperately that “Hoosiers don’t believe in discrimination.”

Stephanopoulos: “Do you think it should be legal in the state of Indiana to discriminate against gays or lesbians?”

Pence: “George …” He never could quite bring himself to just say no.

Pence and the Legislature’s majority party thought they were on safe ground because their law really did look like a federal freedom of religion act passed during the Clinton administration. Except for the part about giving businesses the right to refuse service on religious grounds. Like a bakery declining to provide a wedding cake for a gay couple. Which was absolutely not in any way the example the State Legislature had in mind. No, sirree.

The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act is known as RFRA despite the unfortunate resemblance to the sound of a hoarse Labrador retriever. It was passed in 1993 in response to the problems of Native Americans in Oregon, who smoked peyote in a religious ceremony and were then fired from their jobs and denied unemployment benefits.

The Indiana law was passed at a time of major frustration by the state’s social conservatives over a court ruling that made it impossible to pass a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage.

All those who believe the Indiana Legislature was acting out of concern over the right of Native Americans to use peyote raise their hands.

“The politics as it went through the statehouse was clear,” said Deborah Widiss, a law professor at Indiana University.

Pence did have another explanation for why Indiana needed a religious freedom law right now. He said he wanted to expand the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, which held that corporations have the right to refuse to cover the cost of contraception under the Affordable Care Act. “With the Supreme Court’s ruling, the need for a RFRA at the state level became more important, as the federal law does not apply to states,” the governor wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

Think about that for a minute. Indiana passes a law that is widely regarded as a sop to the state’s social conservatives for their inability to ban same-sex marriage. The Republican establishment expresses dismay at this interpretation, and insists that its only intention was to deprive female residents of the right to get birth control.

Yippee.

We seem to have a pattern here. Last year in Arizona when the governor vetoed the anti-gay bill, the Legislature vented its frustration by passing a new anti-abortion law. The gay rights movement is winning, big time. But governments are still insisting on their authority to mess with the sex lives of heterosexual women.

Right now, Indiana is in a mess, and residents are worried about the loss of jobs and investment because of a meaningless and spiteful piece of legislation. They should feel free to blame their governor. Mike Pence was supposed to be one of those evenheaded fiscal conservatives that moderate Republicans point to as a potential presidential candidate. But he didn’t have the foresight to see how badly this would turn out, or the spine to push back. In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson is watching him flounder and making a last-minute attempt to beat back a similar bill there.

Pence and the Legislature want to appease the business community by amending the law. They’re currently trying to find a way to accomplish that mission while not upsetting the social conservatives they made so happy just last month.

Good luck with that one, guys.

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One Response to “Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins”

  1. The Barbarians Won Says:

    I’m not Bibi’s apologist but to say the least and not mock editorial writers would be difficult and insincere. But think how long the US took to get to the table and then put Bibi’s alarmist sayings in perspective.

    Be that as it may; It has been clear from the start that the US was not and will not be able to convince Russia, China, Pakistan or perhaps even India that aiding Iran is not in their best interests. To argue against sanctions is to say that that the Iranians came to the table of their own volition. Folly. The bombing option was not feasible for reasons known only to the industrialists opposed to it. To reason that we could have done the same to China which stole the bomb implementations from the US among others is venturing out into the absurd. Mao? Really? Today’s rulers? Liberators? Come on u can do better than that. You see the problem with the conservatives and the liberals is that neither group has a firm grasp on reality.

    Anyway to say u will have delayed Iran for a decade is at best a guess. The only clear road to survival is the destruction of Iran.

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