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“Governor brings religion into the public sphere”

KS governor Sam Brownback. Photo credit: Brent Wistrom, The Wichita Eagle

Fearing terms is odd. But in terms of terms to fear

I’d suggest “public square” and “public sphere.”
When it comes to church and state separation
these words are oft used for equivocation
of an individual’s right to express a thought
and a government’s ideological onslaught,
to swap the former for the latter.

The “public square” or “public sphere,” you see
can refer to a literal town square or public access TV
or to the podium where a governor stands
issuing edicts and waving his hands.
It’s not a difference of ideas transmitted
but the weight of actual law permitted
to enforce their content that matters.

A religious politician is no pioneer.
All people are religious in the public sphere
if they are religious, that is, and openly so.
No laws prohibit prayer in school, and no
rules forbid statements of faith in the street.
But you won’t hear this from theocrats you meet
who confuse gov’t endorsement with speech.

They say God has been forbidden from class
if the teacher can’t make you get off of your ass
and pray to a god you might not believe in
or a different version than you were conceiving.
Your personal faith, though, is perfectly kosher.
It’s mandated worship that we should be so sure
to avoid, for that’s overreach.

Likewise, pols wanting laws made at God’s behest
would do well to consider the lemon test:
legislation must have a secular reason.
This means that those who contemplate seizing
the power of office to make us obey
their faith fall afoul of what their own laws say;
their job is to govern, not preach.

I know when it comes to private and public
it’s hard to determine the best way to stick
to church/state separation. But really, these
efforts to conflate, trick, and tease
make it harder. Jurisprudence and God
must be distinguished. Brownback has trod
on a freedom that we now must teach.

Christian like me

[Religiously] Unaffiliated Americans are also less likely to vote in presidential elections than other religious groups. Although they make up 19% of the adult population, the AVS found that only 16% of unaffiliated are likely voters.

This quote, from The Evolution of the Religiously Unaffiliated Vote, 1980-2008, made me pause for a moment. Not to think about the importance or ethics of voting (or not voting, as the case may be). That is a fascinating topic, but one I don’t want to address right now. What I’m thinking about, actually, is what it says in terms of privilege.

Think about the fuss raised about Mitt Romney being Mormon, at least before he received the Republican nomination. It’s the exact same fuss that was raised in 2008, if you recall. Not the right kind of Christian. Not a Christian at all, according to some. Because, you see, Mormons aren’t real Christians. It was an uncanny echo of the objections raised to JFK, who also wasn’t a “real Christian” in spite of considering himself one. Obama, we hear, is also not a Christian. Sure, he might attend church. He might have written prolifically about his faith, and even belong to a Protestant denomination– United Church of Christ. But according to opponents who obviously know Obama’s faith more than he does himself, he’s actually, secretly, a Muslim. Or an atheist. Or both.

Evangelist Billy Graham’s career has been in large part about advising presidential candidates and presidents on how to be more Christian, or at least appear to be. According to With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America,* Graham (who is a registered Democrat, but opposed Kennedy because he was Catholic) began functioning in the role of adviser to the president on behalf of evangelical America with Richard Nixon, whom he advised to actually attend church every once in a while. Graham, for all of the legitimate criticisms one could make of his beliefs, was (and is, so far as I can tell– he’s still kicking around at age 94) at least earnest about them. He didn’t want to control the presidency or the government; he wanted a voice– according to Graham, Jesus did not have a political party (though he did, apparently, have opinions). In 1979 Graham refused to join Jerry Falwell’s so-called Moral Majority, saying:

I’m for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.

It’s notable this same person supported Mitt Romney for president in 2012, and also that he has spent considerable time in his remaining years lending his name to causes opposing gay rights. Graham, who has been called “the Protestant Pope,” is a complicated man— his son Franklin much less so. The modern religious right is either less thoughtful or less honest, or both.

Now, I ask you to imagine…what if Billy Graham was Richard Dawkins? What if every president in America’s history had been a non-believer rather than a Christian, and a self-appointed advocate of secularism became powerful enough to advise every person aspiring to executive office on how to be properly atheist? And this person could decide for all of his followers whether they would join in allegiance in voting for the sufficiently atheistic presidential wannabe, or his/her opponent? I know of Christians who refused to vote in the 2012 election because they didn’t consider Romney a proper Christian, even though he represents their politics. Can you imagine if atheists did the same, from their own perspective?

Yeah, neither can I.

*Excellent book, by the way. Great for enhancing your own historical perspective. 

I’d like a glue gun, some acrylic paint, and some birth control

A federal judge denied Hobby Lobby’s request for exemption from the federal requirement to provide health care coverage which covers contraception, especially (at least, this is what owner David Green claimed to be his basis for objection) the morning-after pill.

In a 28-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton denied a request by Hobby Lobby to prevent the government from enforcing portions of the health care law mandating insurance coverage for contraceptives the company’s Christian owners consider objectionable. The Oklahoma City-based company and a sister company, Mardel Inc., sued the government in September, claiming the mandate violates the owners’ religious beliefs. The owners contend the morning-after and week-after birth control pills are tantamount to abortion because they can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in a woman’s womb. They also object to providing coverage for certain kinds of intrauterine devices. At a hearing earlier this month, a government lawyer said the drugs do not cause abortions and that the U.S. has a compelling interest in mandating insurance coverage for them. In his ruling denying Hobby Lobby’s request for an injunction, Heaton said that while churches and other religious organizations have been granted constitutional protection from the birth-control provisions, “Hobby Lobby and Mardel are not religious organizations.”

Well, they might be– they sound pretty darn religious to me. But I’m very glad they don’t get to impose that religion on their female employees by denying them health coverage.

Now to decide whether to end my personal boycott of Hobby Lobby…shopping for all of my craftsy stuff at Michael’s really bites.

Dear Bill O’Reilly…

…no calculator, moral or otherwise, will make it less expensive to arrest people than to help them. Trust me on this. The more you deny it, the more ridiculous you are:

Is traditional America gone for good? That’s the question Bill O’Reilly tackled during his Talking Points Memo on Monday night. Criticizing “secular progressives,” O’Reilly called for the right kind of politician who will help us confront the “reality of our situation.” Traditional America can come back, O’Reilly said, with the right person to make it happen.
Specifically, he pointed to Mitt Romney‘s electoral loss among blacks, women and Latinos. “It was an entitlement election,” he said. The media would have you believing the election confirmed election ideology. While that’s not true, he said, secularism is “eroding traditional power.” “On paper, the stats look hopeless for traditional Americans,” O’Reilly said. “But they can be reversed. However, it will take a very special politician to do that. By the way, Mitt Romney didn’t even try to marginalize secularism. He basically ignored it.” Secular progressives don’t have the right approach, he argued, because they don’t want judgment on personal behavior. For examples, O’Reilly pointed to the issues of out-of-wedlock births, abortion and entitlements. Secular progressives “don’t want limitations on so-called private behavior,” he said. The majority of Americans can be persuaded, O’Reilly said, “that the far-left is dangerous outfit, bent of destroying traditional America and replacing it with a social free-fire zone that drives dependency and poverty.” We need to confront that, he added. But too many of our politicians are too cowardly to do so.

Refusing to place limitations on so-called private behavior…that’s called freedom, right? Yeah, sounded familiar. Those damn secular progressives and their desire for freedom.

O’Reilly for some reason doesn’t delve into the particular ways in which he’d like to limit private behavior, and how doing so would alleviate poverty and the need for “entitlements” and dependency. Probably because the only way he could suggest that his fans would actually get behind– banning abortion– would actually result in greater poverty and dependency. Not just because outlawing abortion would make criminals of women and their doctors, and criminals have to be identified, located, arrested, prosecuted, and punished, and that all costs money. But because childbirth costs money– a lot of money, far more than an abortion– and raising an unwanted child also costs money:

The women in the Turnaway Study were in comparable economic positions at the time they sought abortions. 45% were on public assistance and two-thirds had household incomes below the federal poverty level. One of the main reasons women cite for wanting to abort is money, and based on the outcomes for the turnaways, it seems they are right. Most of the women who were denied an abortion, 86%, were living with their babies a year later. Only 11% had put them up for adoption. Also a year later, they were far more likely to be on public assistance — 76% of the turnaways were on the dole, as opposed to 44% of those who got abortions. 67% percent of the turnaways were below the poverty line (vs. 56% of the women who got abortions), and only 48% had a full time job (vs. 58% of the women who got abortions). When a woman is denied the abortion she wants, she is statistically more likely to wind up unemployed, on public assistance, and below the poverty line. Another conclusion we could draw is that denying women abortions places more burden on the state because of these new mothers’ increased reliance on public assistance programs.

An abortion is a last ditch effort to prevent what other thing Bill O’Reilly is not fond of? Unwanted pregnancies. Actually, he doesn’t much care about pregnancies being unwanted; he cares about them being out of wedlock, because all babies born out of wedlock are going to be on welfare, and only unmarried women want abortions, because they’re a bunch of young sluts. Right.

The “young slut” argument is why O’Reilly and friends also stand firmly opposed to the single biggest thing in the way of unwanted pregnancies that government can actually do something about, which is of course contraception. Providing education about contraception and making it easier for people to access it would save loads of money and prevent abortions, but O’Reilly doesn’t like that because a) government spending money is wrong, at least if it’s to provide education or financial assistance to people rather than to arrest and prosecute them, and b) doing so would amount to the government implying that it’s okay to have sex without making a baby, and that’s only a message a secular progressive would want to send to the young sluts. The message Bill O’Reilly would send is, of course: Don’t have sex, until you get married. Then have sex, but without contraception, so you can have babies. But if you can’t afford to have babies, don’t come crying to me about abortions or welfare because you’re not getting them.

Let’s remember, nearly every American woman who is sexually active will use contraception at some point in her life. A typical American woman wants only two children. In order to accomplish this while having a normal sex life, she would have to be using contraception for roughly three decades. And 95% of Americans have had premarital sex.

So, Bill….tell me again how you’d propose to keep us out of poverty and independent by curtailing our personal freedoms? Oh, by being “traditional.”

Yeah, I think I’ll stick with being a “secular progressive.”

Politics for creative types

Matthew Inman’s comic on the creative process (which you’ve almost certainly seen already because you already read The Oatmeal; and if you haven’t because you don’t, now’s the time to start) got me thinking about creativity and political leanings. I don’t know anything about Inman’s own politics, really, aside from the fact that he has a firm grasp of the notion of copyright, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he leans to the left at least a little bit. People who make a living– and people who wish they could make a living– producing creative content tend to, and I’ve been contemplating why that is.

I think it has something to do with just world bias and how utterly it conflicts with the creative market.

See, probably every creative person you know has at some point (probably many points) in their life had the thought about someone “That person produces complete crap, and yet people shower affections, praise, and cash upon him/her.” A creative person is intimately aware of how much of his/her success (or lack thereof) is based on a combination of the sheer caprice of public taste and plain’ old dumb luck. This does not mean that creative types who are successful didn’t earn their success, but rather that their success cannot be summed up simply as the reward of effort, and most of them know this. A creative person doesn’t want his/her success to be simply the reward for effort, because that totally discards the notion of talent. And how much of it they have. And how that makes them special.

Note: there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be special.

But what this means is that even the most full of him/herself, egotistical artist/writer/performer on the planet– and there’s no shortage of those– is at least tacitly aware that things could be very different, that he/she might not have been “discovered,” that his/her genius might have gone permanently unrecognized, and he/she could have become the proverbial starving artist. Or, in many cases, is one now. So the artist sees the importance of a social safety net, and doesn’t look down on those who find themselves needing to land in it. But, you could say, artists don’t have to starve– they could easily do something else! Many of them do do something else! Yes, but one of the things about creativity is that you have to do that, to be that. Creators gotta create. They find themselves doing it regardless of whether anyone’s paying attention, let alone paying them for it, and that takes time, energy, and other resources. Money that a non-creative person might spend on tickets to the Super Bowl (no, I’m not saying only non-creative people like football. But…well, hmm. Maybe I am) gets spent instead on paint, instruments, clay, fabric, microphones, and Photoshop. Etc.

But what does this have to do with being liberal, exactly? Well, conservatism is rife with just world bias– the assumption is “I built this,” or, when prompted to be religious, “I built this, with the opportunities God gave me.” A conservative’s success is his/her own, and a conservative’s lack of success is…temporary. Not necessary. A test of faith. Things along those lines. To a conservative, the market is not a matter of public taste– it’s a matter of public recognition of quality, and quality is produced through effort. Effort and know-how. The market approaches objectivity in that regard. Criticize a movie that won out big at the box office, and a conservative will be the first person to remind you of that fact. The existence of Jersey Shore is simply the public not knowing what quality is.

This is why, when a conservative talks about “personal responsibility,” he/she is talking about taking responsibility for the fact that you’re successful or not, and not bugging anyone else about it. You’re poor? Get a job. Got a job? Get another/better job. Do some work; work people will pay you for. Don’t take from others, you lazy grasshopper, when all of us ants are putting in an eight-hour day, every day, and providing goods and services the market wants. It might not be “fair” that the market doesn’t want whatever it is you are producing, but life ain’t fair. Suck it up.

The starving artist does have to suck it up. But they are very aware of the “have” in that sentence. This is why the expression “selling out” exists. This is why creative types can be suspicious of the notion of “property rights”– because it suggests that property is as important as people. Other rights we’re familiar with are about individuals and what individuals are allowed to say, think, and do…property rights are about what they’re allowed to have, and that’s suspicious. What we’re allowed to have has, after all, at some points included other people. The notion of a corporation has made what we have into a person, and liberals are not any happier about the thought of property becoming people than they are about people becoming property.

Property rights are important to me, but I had to learn why they should be. It wasn’t nearly as intuitive as the right to be creative, to produce things because you can and want to for your own pleasure and that of others.  I had to come to see property as the necessary condition for that that production, an extension of the individual which the denial of directly inhibits his or her pursuit of happiness. I think that’s how you sell the importance of the Fourth Amendment to liberals, to make them regard it as anywhere near as important as the First– you make it harder for a person to live, to create, to pursue happiness, when you take his or her things away. Creation is done via speaking and doing, and the speaking reduces to doing, and you can’t do without stuff. Artists are well-accustomed to doing with less than they’d prefer to have, making it work (because the alternative is to not create at all), but it’s possible to see the practical effect of taking away what a person needs, and recognize that the damage that does is similar to that done by attacking or silencing them. And creators are good at nuance, so they can recognize that this doesn’t mean taking someone’s stuff is identical to attacking or silencing them, though it can amount to the same thing or even be worse. Property rights aren’t just so that CEOs can live in enormous houses– they’re also so that your life savings doesn’t get confiscated by the police without so much as charging you with a crime, so that your privacy is not invaded for the sake of preventing you from ingesting materials which conservatives find morally objectionable, so that your autonomy is not taken from you because you were caught doing so.

The emphasis on autonomy is, incidentally, why I consider myself a libertarian, albeit a very left-leaning one. I support a safety net, but I also support the ability to do pretty much any kind of gymnastics you care to above it. My sense of personal responsibility doesn’t extend to being fully responsible for screwing up your life, and certainly not to others– or life itself– screwing it up for you. I strongly believe people should be allowed to make their own mistakes, but there’s a limit to how much suffering should be permissible as a consequence, and not everyone who finds themselves suffering made any mistake at all– certainly not one that the person looking down on them from the balcony of a mansion or the edge of a pulpit couldn’t have made just as easily him or herself, if things had gone slightly differently. Trading Places is a damn good movie.

And it was made by creative people. Probably liberals.

Proximate pratfall

Regarding Richard Mourdock’s “rape babies are a gift from God” comment

It’s fun to see people all over the internet making fun of Mourdock saying that a pregnancy which results from rape should be considered a gift from God, because that life is something God intended to happen. They can see the obvious dishonesty of it, and are going to town drawing the logical conclusions of such a statement. Those logical conclusions are how we can know it was dishonest– if it wasn’t, then the most charitable thing that can be said is that Mourdock didn’t exactly think it through.

You see, the position that God intended for a pregnancy to have resulted from a rape can be interpreted in one of two ways:

1. Ultimate: Of course God intended for it to happen, because God intends everything! God is the author of the universe, the primary force behind everything and everything. He is the ground of being, or at least the first cause who set everything in motion. Therefore if something happens, it is by his intention.

Why Mourdock’s statement is ridiculous, if that’s what he meant: Rape pregnancies, then, are intended by God in the same sense as cancer, earthquakes, and car accidents. The implication of Mourdock’s statement is of course that a pregnancy resulting from rape is intended by God, therefore the woman should not have an abortion. But our response to disease, natural disasters, and human-caused mishaps is not to proceed about our day as if nothing happened, whether we regard those things as ultimately intended by God or not. When those things happen, we attempt to fix them– to put things right. Oftentimes, to a woman whose pregnancy resulted from rape, getting an abortion is putting things right (well, as much as she can). God intending the pregnancy is not an argument against her doing so any more than it is an argument against chemotherapy for cancer patients.

2. Proximate: A rape victim’s pregnancy is a result of special intervention on God’s part. For reasons known only to God– and apparently to Mourdock– God looked down on that woman who had recently experienced the suffering of sexual violation and said “Hey, that raped lady needs a baby.” And presto! He put one inside her.

Why Mourdock’s statement is ridiculous, if that’s what he meant: Because it makes God– and Mourdock– a sadist. Unfortunately Mourdock’s use of the word “gift” makes it much more likely that this is the sense in which his statement was made, and that’s why people are reacting so badly to it even though he still appears to have no clue of the enormity of what he said. That’s what is making people mentally dry heave.

And by the way, you can give a gift back. It might be rude, but you can do it. Just saying.

This lead me, though, to think of an earlier rumination I had about conservatives conflating God’s behavior in the proximate vs. ultimate sense, so I’m re-posting that here:

1. “Everything is caused by a higher power. I call that higher power God.”

2. “Natural disasters are acts of God– they are part of the structure of the world and we just have to deal with them as they come.”

3. “Now that (insert natural disaster) has happened, are the people of (insert region of the world) going to wake up and see that God has a message for them?  Are they going to see that God is not happy, and change their ways?”

Three very different statements. The third person is claiming that a natural disaster is a specific act of God, performed in reaction to the behavior of people in the area affected by it. This person is either too uneducated to know the reality of why natural disasters happen in certain times and in certain places, or does not mind appearing to be. To put it less delicately, if you claim that natural disasters are actually divine punishment you are not only stunningly lacking in empathy but can also safely be thought less than bright. I don’t expect people to stop doing that any time soon, but our collective willingness to call their statements ridiculous has increased.  Previously there would have been no need for Michele Bachmann’s PR person to declare that she was simply joking [when she said that Hurricane Irene was God “getting Washington’s attention”].

We still don’t– or at least, shouldn’t– want people who are willing to make statements like that running the country. We shouldn’t want governors who think that you solve problems like property rights violations and drought by appealing to God to solve them. We shouldn’t want a president who decided to run in the first place because he/she thinks God told him/her to run, or that God will tell him/her things like whether to go to war or not while in office.

Why? Because these put God in front of natural and human causes for things. They make him a proximate cause, rather than the ultimate one. God might indeed favor Herman Cain for president, but the rest of us should be primarily concerned with whether he’s what the country needs, and whether he’ll do a good job. God might be concerned about property rights, but since it’s the job of politicians to make things right in that regard, they should be doing it. God might have an opinion about whether the country should go to war, but hopefully it’s based on the same things a president should be concerned about– whether the war is just, how much suffering it will cause, and so on. God might have very firm opinions about how Obama’s handling the deficit, but if you consider Irene to be a sign of that you’re a cretin and shouldn’t be in an elected position of power.

$75k happy

This is a bit old, but I just came across it– an article in Time reports on a study which says that money can buy you happiness, but it reaches diminishing returns past $75,000 or so. That is, people whose yearly salary is around $75,000 seem to have reached the point at which money can make them maximally happy.

I’d be happy for $75,000. Just for the record, if anyone’s wondering? I would.

As you would expect, there are caveats to that. The happiness affected by having that amount of money was not your general day-to-day cheer, but your sense of fulfillment and well-being in life:

Before employers rush to hold — or raise — everyone’s salary to $75,000, the study points out that there are actually two types of happiness. There’s your changeable, day-to-day mood: whether you’re stressed or blue or feeling emotionally sound. Then there’s the deeper satisfaction you feel about the way your life is going — the kind of thing Tony Robbins tries to teach you. While having an income above the magic $75,000 cutoff doesn’t seem to have an impact on the former (emotional well-being), it definitely improves people’s Robbins-like life satisfaction. In other words, the more people make above $75,000, the more they feel their life is working out on the whole. But it doesn’t make them any more jovial in the mornings. . .Researchers found that lower income did not cause sadness itself but made people feel more ground down by the problems they already had. The study found, for example, that among divorced people, about 51% who made less than $1,000 a month reported feeling sad or stressed the previous day, while only 24% of those earning more than $3,000 a month reported similar feelings. Among people with asthma, 41% of low earners reported feeling unhappy, compared with about 22% of the wealthier group. Having money clearly takes the sting out of adversities.
At $75,000, that effect disappears. For people who earn that much or more, individual temperament and life circumstances have much more sway over their lightness of heart than money. The study doesn’t say why $75,000 is the benchmark, but “it does seem to me a plausible number at which people would think money is not an issue,” says Deaton.

And the article mentions what would seem like the biggest point of contention to me, which is that people often care more about their standing relative to others than they do about their sum worth. A person who is financially very comfortable but lives and works around people who make significantly more than he or she does may actually be less happy than someone who makes substantially less but is more on par with his or her friends and colleagues. This tells me that should I ever win the lottery, I should not move into a wealthy neighborhood and hang out with movie stars. Which I wouldn’t want to do anyway.

It also seems, however, that regional differences would matter hugely in this consideration, something the article– and the study it reports on– don’t appear to consider. $75,000 is not stinking rich, but it’s a good bit of money to make in many parts of the U.S. But I sure wouldn’t try to move to New York City or San Francisco on that salary. You’d think the happiness threshold of people who live in such places would be quite a bit higher than for the rest of us, but perhaps that was averaged out. This web site is useful for calculating cost of living for a different city relative to where you are now. It says, for example, that a person who makes $75,000 a year living in Dallas should make $170,571 in San Francisco. Housing is the biggest factor in that difference, being 715% more expensive! Wow.

What this study really says to me is that there is an identifiable point at which people become what you’d call “comfortable,” and this matters in terms of their overall satisfaction in life. Their worries cease impinging on their pursuit of happiness, because poor health and inability to pay your bills are a huge source of worry. The spookiest thing about Mitt Romney is the fact that he not only doesn’t have these worries, but he doesn’t even know what it’s like to have these worries. He can’t properly empathize with Americans on…well, most things in life because he is completely unequipped to process the feeling of not being sure if you need to sell your car in order to hang onto your apartment and keep the lights on, let alone not being sure if you can afford to buy your sixth house (and put a car elevator in its garage). I’m talking about a form of privilege here– inability to empathize because of never having been exposed to the same fear, concern, or worry as those who are suffering it– but it’s so far beyond that, that it hardly seems like the right word. Hyper-privilege, perhaps. Most if not all American presidents have been privileged, but Mitt Romney is hyper-privileged. And that’s why the usual attempts by presidential candidates to appeal to the common American are extra laughable coming from him.

Should someone so far beyond the standard of living which makes the average American happy be in charge of our collective pursuit of happiness? I’m thinking “No.” Perhaps this would be a difficult question if the person under consideration had made some kind of effort to demonstrate an ability to empathize with those who are in a situation he has never and will never have to endure, but Romney has done precisely the opposite– he has sneered at and written off such people. Rather hilariously (and frighteningly) he has lumped people who are comfortable into that group and written them off as well. Like my parents, for example. How does anybody support someone who has said “Screw you” to half the country in that way, even if they aren’t in that half?

Anyway, this wasn’t intended to be a political commentary. If you’re interested in the psychology of happiness generally, I would highly recommend Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis and Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. If you were unaware that there is a psychology of happiness– guess what? There is. And no, it hasn’t succeeded in making everyone happy yet, as I’m sure you are aware. But it’s useful, because it helps us understand why we’re not happy and why it’s very often not our fault. That’s an important counter to so-called power of positive thinking theories which claim that we can just decide to be happy. We can’t. We can decide to do things which will contribute to our happiness, and they may succeed and they may not, but there is no Happiness Switch, and nothing which can flip it. Not even a bucketload of money, though that money can sure help in terms of erasing the worries that are caused by lack of money. So as with all aphorisms, there’s a lot more to “Money can’t buy happiness” than is expressed in the statement itself. It can. It can buy you the happiness of being able to pursue happiness unfettered. Or at least, less fettered than you were before.

Political dietary supplement

Joe Biden seen here impersonating the debate’s audience.

Been watching the presidential and vice-presidential debates? Yes? What’s wrong with you? Just kidding, so  have I. And there may be many things wrong with me, but I don’t think being curious to see how the people aspiring to rule the country handle themselves when faced with direct and challenging questions is one of them. Unfortunately however, the answer for the most part has been “not well.” I’m one of those people who think Biden absolutely trounced Paul Ryan the other night, but I still didn’t appreciate what an ass he was being while doing it. And I’m kind of sorry that while discussing domestic issues the topic of the drug war didn’t come up, because Biden has a lot to answer for there— it’s just that it’s just another topic on which Ryan would contently hold the same position as the incumbents. Generally speaking, the topic of civil liberties has gotten almost no discussion at all, and it’s hard to shake the impression that this is because the candidates on both sides are not big fans.

Which is why I won’t be voting D or R in November. I’ll be voting L again most likely, and am looking forward to seeing the debate for the other presidential candidates; the ones you haven’t seen shouting at each other– yet. The Free and Equal Elections Foundation is hosting a debate for third party candidates coming up:

Free and Equal Elections Foundation announced today that four candidates have confirmed their participation in the 2012 Presidential Debate at the University Club of Chicago on October 23: Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, Green Party candidate Jill Stein, Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode, and Justice Party candidate Rocky Anderson.
This debate is the only 2012 Presidential Debate featuring four candidates. The top six candidates were invited to participate. Democratic Party candidate and incumbent Barack Obama and Republican Party candidate Mitt Romney are welcome to participate in this historic debate. The moderator will be announced shortly. “The four candidates participating represent a nice balance of right and left leaning candidates,” stated Christina Tobin, chair of Free and Equal. “This debate will cover the real issues facing our country such as foreign policy, the economy, and civil rights, rather than topics that further divide us.” Free and Equal’s 2012 Presidential Debate sponsors span the political spectrum of grassroots organizations and media who are uniting to solve our nation’s problems. Current sponsors include The Josh Tolley ShowBallot Access NewsMuslims for LibertyNational Constitution PartyThe Justice PartyBlue RepublicansRestore the RepublicRe-Tea PartyFree the Vote NCWe the PeopleGrassroots for Liberty, and New Progressive AllianceThe debate will be broadcast online at Several additional live feeds will be announced shortly as Free & Equal finalizes its media sponsors.

I will always maintain that even people who fully support the Democratic or Republican candidate for president should want third party candidates to be included in the debates as well, because chances are there is something you think that your candidate just isn’t good enough on, and one or more of the third party candidates are better. That or those candidates are in a position to challenge your man or woman to step up to the plate and do more– make better promises, articulate better plans, do something to justify your continuing to support them rather than defecting to a candidate who better serves your interests. They’re not going to get that kind of pressure from the single guy on the other side of the stage, because Mitt Romney sure as hell isn’t going to compete with Obama on who can legalize marijuana (for example) faster.

Ideological competition: it does a country good. It makes us healthier to have options. If we can be bothered to pay attention, they’re there.

Thinking cautiously on political affiliation and identity

If you had to vote for one of two hypothetical candidates for president, and one was a liberal Christian and the other was a conservative atheist, and that’s all you knew about them…who would you vote for?

This question, originally posed at Atheist Revolution, has been labeled a stupid question and an easy question by PZ Myers and Ed Brayton, respectively.

I don’t think it’s stupid. I do think it’s easy, but only because of the limited amount of information on offer for each candidate– religious affiliation (or lack thereof), and political leanings described in a single word. I find it discomfiting to be described as liberal or conservative, but the positions of people who are just fine with being labeled in one direction or the other are pretty simple to guess, and it’s just as simple to decide which one you’d prefer in the White House. It doesn’t mean you’re behind them in every way, but most of us have a general idea of which choice would make us less likely to wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night for having supported such a candidate.

Asking us how we feel about a person who is a member of our group (or not) being elected to the highest office in the land appeals to our desire to have that person empathize with us. That only works if we know literally nothing else about the person, other than whether or not he/she is a member of our group. A Christian, or an atheist? By all means, the atheist please. But when you add in other elements that not only are more likely to affect his or her policies, especially things that directly describe his or her policies…that changes the question entirely.

I want someone whose policies most closely align with mine, period. A person who shares other traits with me might be more likely to agree with me on policy, but not necessarily. So if you stipulate straight out that they don’t agree with me on policy, I could hardly care less how similar they are to me in other regards.

Generally speaking, a liberal candidate is far more likely to agree with me on policy than a conservative candidate. But there are individual liberal-leaning candidates who are further from me, ideologically, than certain individual conservative-leaning candidates. This is why limiting the information given by telling me only a candidate’s religious affiliation (or lack thereof) makes the decision easier, but it’s also made easier by expanding the information by telling me more about the particular ways in which a candidate leans liberal or conservative.

We speak critically of people who make their entire decision about who to vote for based on incidental traits of that person which were more or less unchosen, because that means weighing such traits over things that were chosen, and which have a much greater impact on that candidate’s potential behavior during his or her time in office. Whether the candidate is an atheist or a Christian is one such judgment– if it’s all you have to go on, then by all means go ahead choose the candidate who is more like you. But it’s never all we have to go on. Far from it.

That’s why these “who do you agree with?” quizzes are somewhat useful– they encourage you to think solely about what platform issues concern you most, to the exclusion of what party is endorsing them or how the candidate running on that platform is similar and/or familiar to you. They also can, for that very reason, show some manipulation in favor of showing that everybody is really a libertarian, so nobody should vote Democrat or Republican if they know what’s good for them! That’s a pitfall to avoid, but the general interest in discouraging partisanship and getting people to consider where they actually stand on issues, and who agrees with them, is a good one.

Not a shocker

I’ve taken the ISideWith quiz before with similar results, but that time I basically zipped through it and this time I actually expanded all of the questions using the “see more” function on each one, and then decided from all possible answers. And this was the result:

Generally speaking, I vote. I don’t consider it a moral obligation, but I do it. However I have never voted for someone who then went on to win, and most likely never will. If America had preferential voting that might not be the case, because– you’d think– people would be both more knowledgeable about a variety of candidates rather than just the dominant two, and less concerned about voting for someone other than one of those dominant two because they could always specify one of them as “backup,” as their second choice, thereby eliminating concern about needing to vote for the lesser of two evils.

The test said that you could always enter your own answer instead, but that would decrease the accuracy of the overall assessment. So I only did that once– on the death penalty question, I said that I would support the death penalty only by choice of the prisoner. And all prisoners should be able to make that choice.

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