Sunday, March 31, 2013

True words

In this video, Jon Stewart eviscerates the rightwing arguments against marriage equality as presented to the US Supreme Court and advocated by its most hard right and ideological members. Scalia’s arguments were, as usual, ignorant and lacking in any concern for fact. Alitos’s were, too, but Stewart’s retort to him was dead-on correct: "You don't have to beta test rights."

I don’t expect this video—low resolution though it is—to remain in YouTube for long, so if you’re in the USA, you can view it via Hulu on the Huffington Post.

Accidental ignorance

Last night, we had a vegetable for dinner and I thought I’d blog about it. That means links, and that led me to an American’s ignorance.

The vegetable is known in New Zealand as kamo kamo (or also as kumi kumi), and it’s a cultivar of the Cucurbita maxima family of summer squash which, if you follow the link, you’ll see it really is “one of the most diverse domesticated species” of squash.

The vegetable is often boiled or steamed and is quite bland, so I was told to put butter and salt/pepper on it. That was nice enough, but I think it would be good in a casserole, where it can absorb flavours. It’s most similar to courgette/zucchini/marrow, and can be used in pretty much any recipe that calls for that vegetable.

The vegetable is native to South America, and was eventually brought to New Zealand by early European settlers. It was adopted as staple food by Maori, and remains popular among Maori today, though it’s fallen a bit out of fashion.

All of that I pretty much knew. I’d probably already tried the vegetable, too, though I don’t think I’d had it in quite that traditional way before. It’s part of the culinary heritage in New Zealand, which is why I wanted to mention it, and that led me to search for more detailed information to link to—and to my temporary diversion into American ignorance.

I happened on a web page where people can ask questions, and one was from an American who was apparently married to a Kiwi. She wrote, “it is found in new zealand, and can't find out anything about it, bought it to try, but don't know how to cook it.” Bad capitalisation and grammar aside, a pretty straightforward question. A New Zealander answered with some helpful suggestions on how to cook it. All good.

Two days later, an American who claims to be passionate about cooking wrote: “No such thing. Kiwi is a fruit they produce. kumi Kumi is however an illegal liquor brewed in Kenya from sorghum, maize or millet.” Neither the questioner nor the person who answered ever used the word “Kiwi”, so I have no idea why this person so arrogantly lectured them on what the person clearly perceived as the only “correct” use of the word. While “kumi kumi” is indeed such a beverage, that doesn’t mean the same name isn’t used for something entirely different. To me, it’s the height of ethnocentric arrogance to declare that kamo kamo (kumi kumi) doesn’t exist because the person had, apparently, never heard of it (keep in mind, the comment was added AFTER a New Zealander talked about it and offered cooking suggestions!).

I mention all that because it’s an object lesson in how Americans so often get caught out on the Internet by assuming that their way of seeing things is universal, that the entire world follows the lead of the USA and does things the way Americans do. Sometimes they just look hilariously stupid—like declaring a vegetable doesn’t exist when it does—other times their ignorance leads them to make really stupid declarations about other countries they so clearly know nothing about (the healthcare debate is a prime example, or this hilarity, or when Americans declare in Internet comments that “the whole world” is converting to the US system of weights and measures—yes, they’re still claiming that).

For the record, kiwifruit (not “kiwi”) is the correct name of the fruit to distinguish it from the bird and people. When referring to the people of New Zealand, it should be capitalised, both to distinguish it and because it’s a proper noun. Kamo kamo (or kumi kumi) does indeed exist. It’s nice and also versatile. And, related, what North Americans often call “winter squash” is called pumpkin in New Zealand. I bet that American would deny that, too.

I tried the vegetable because I prefer to find out about things myself—and that includes countries and their culture. It’s disappointing that more people don’t do the same.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Easter shopping

Easter is a four-day weekend in New Zealand, with public holidays on Friday and Monday, and bans on most trading on Friday and Sunday. Is it time for change?

Interestingly, the debate isn’t one of Right v. Left, since folks on both ends of the spectrum oppose change. For the right, it’s mainly about religion or tradition (or both), and for the left it’s mainly about exploitation of workers.

Yesterday, Stuff published a story about stores illegally trading on Good Friday and quoted one retailer who said opening in defiance of the law was “a victimless crime". One of my Leftist friends posted it to Facebook, commenting that in such cases workers are victims.

Retail workers are often victims: They’re more likely to be part-time, low-skill and easily replaced, all of which means that they have very little power in the employee/employer relationship. So, most retail workers can’t easily negotiate with their employers to take a public holiday off—but this powerlessness is equally true for any of the 361½ days a year when all stores may be open, so why is Easter weekend any different?

Enter the traditionalists who argue that it’s been this way for a long time and, in any case, workers deserve to have time off with their families. Both are true—but should they determine what public policy will be into the future?

What about people in an increasingly busy world who have no more time available than do retail workers? Should they be forbidden to do their shopping on 3½ days a year because it’s “tradition” or because retail workers are powerless?

Honestly, I don’t know the answer. In general, I’m sympathetic to workers, as well as to the argument that if people can’t do without shops for 3½ days a year, then they need to re-evaluate their lives. But is that any of government’s business?

For me, it’s not about the religious origins of three of those public holidays (Christmas Day, Good Friday and Easter Sunday; the half day is ANZAC Day morning, which is not religious). Those days now have very little religious significance to most Kiwis, so the origins are kind of irrelevant.

Ultimately, I think that the Internet Age will make shopping restrictions irrelevant, too, when we order things online: It doesn’t matter if the shops are open or not, or whether we value religion or tradition.

Still, every year this debate comes up, and every year the malls are packed on Saturday (they were today) and on Monday. I also wrote about this way back in 2007, on the first Easter after I started this blog.

Still, there’s one thing that I definitely DO like about the 3½ days a year that shops are closed: There are no TV commercials (apart from promos for programmes). Actually, there are no TV commercials on Sunday mornings, either (also a hold over from the days in which religion mattered more), but I’m either not up or watching TV to take much notice of that.

Whatever the days are or should be or how they came to be or if that matters, they are, at the very least, a four-day holiday weekend. That, too, is a good thing, with or without shopping.

Equal justice under law

In last week’s oral arguments on the infamous Defense [sic] of Marriage Act (DOMA) before the US Supreme Court, Chief Justice Roberts seemed to suggest that LGBT people were politically powerful.

This matters because of what’s called “heightened scrutiny”, which concerns the equal protection provisions of the US Constitution, especially as it pertains to the political powerlessness of minorities. The standard has always been about historic powerlessness, not current events, but Richard Socarides had this to say in the New Yorker about the supposed political power of LGBT Americans:
“…going directly to Chief Justice Roberts’s point about the success gay-rights advocates had in last year’s election—winning ballot initiatives in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington—I hardly think having to raise tens of millions of dollars to obtain your rights, when they are free to everyone else, would suggest a lot of political power in the first instance. It’s more like good survival skills and ingenuity.”
And talking about how historically LGBT people have suffered from discrimination at the hands of the majority, he pointed out that DOMA was passed in 1996, a time when LGBT people obviously didn’t have political power. He also noted:
“Proposition 8, California’s anti-gay-marriage ballot initiative, was passed not in 1978, or even 1998, but in 2008. And in May 2012—less than a year ago—voters in North Carolina approved a state-constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Rob Portman is still the only sitting Republican senator to express his support. He didn’t have to fall over any of his colleagues.”


“Just because a group is able to marshal its resources to undertake what is essentially a Herculean effort to protect itself, in a very limited and targeted way, does not mean it is unworthy of constitutional defense. Or think of it this way: just because the gay teen-agers on ‘Glee’ are accepted, well-adjusted, loved by their peers, and able to kiss on television without consequence in their fictionalized reality does not mean that a poor, young, gay teen-ager living in the red-state South is not having a hard time of it. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t deserve a day in court.”
I think those are important points, especially because it highlights the fact that some recent political successes for LGBT people doesn’t change the fact that LGBT have suffered from historic oppression and political powerlessness. That is precisely the context in which DOMA was first passed in 1996: The intent of Congress to deliberately target LGBT people for discrimination back then is indisputable.

So, I think it’s obvious that DOMA must be struck down or the equal protection provisions of the Constitution mean nothing. Recent political victories for LGBT people don’t change that fact—or erase the historic discrimination that led to DOMA in the first place.

Equal justice under law, and all that.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Harvest time

We have two olive trees in our yard. The photo above shows what we got this year.

The truth is, we don’t actually care if the trees produce olives or not—I couldn’t be bothered processing them if they did. All we really care about is that they’re big, leafy evergreen trees that provide shade and screen us from the neighbours.

Last year the trees dropped one tiny green olive. This year, it also dropped two black ones, which had already moved well past their peak by the time I found them. In both years, they may have produced more and I just never saw them, but I think it’s funnier to think that three is our “bumper harvest”.

And there we have it: Our big harvest, complete with photographic evidence.

Harsh scrutiny

Conservative Christians make one claim that cannot be allowed to stand: That they’re “victims” because of their religious beliefs. Their assertion isn’t just wrong or stupid, it’s offensive.

Rightwing Christians have been using this ploy for years in somewhat different contexts. However, the one thing that remains consistent is their outrageous claim that they’re somehow being “oppressed” because they’re losing the culture wars.

Writing for MaddowBlog, Steve Benen put it really well:
As much as I hate to break up a good pity party, it's worth noting that conservative evangelicals are not actually oppressed, at least not in this country. They're losing public debates—failing to persuade the American mainstream is not the same thing as persecution—but no one has proposed stopping social conservatives from getting married, or adopting, or serving in the military. When conservative evangelicals get elected to Congress, it's not a historic breakthrough. When social conservatives look for equality, they don't wait patiently for a Supreme Court ruling to decide whether they'll get it.

They're eager to make others second-class citizens, but as these efforts stumble, conservative evangelicals have convinced themselves that they're the real second-class citizens. [emphasis in the original]
Exactly! Their losing doesn’t turn them into “victims” because they’re not experiencing what they do to LGBT people. Benen adds:
It appears social conservatives just don't take criticism well. I'll gladly concede that a growing number of Americans find the religious right's views offensive and narrow-minded, and, conservative evangelicals occasionally find themselves the subject of criticism.

But that's not oppression or discrimination; it's the result of a spirited public discourse. These conservatives have presented their vision to the public, and increasingly, the public is responding with disapproval.
And that’s at the heart of this and my last two posts: Religion itself is not an enemy, but political opinions based on religious views are NOT exempt from being criticised simply because they’re based on religious beliefs. When one’s political opinions are criticised, one is not a “victim”; instead, one is merely a participant in a vibrant democratic process.

I would hope that all sides in any public debate would stick to verifiable facts and keep mocking and dismissiveness to a minimum. When the debate veers into the false or irrelevant, then strong criticism is and should be the result.

But when considering who is a victim, look at who presently has political power and who is trying to deny the human rights—the very humanity—of their opponents. It’s not conservative Christians who are the victims in that equation, and they never will be.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

No free pass

Just because someone is religious doesn’t mean they’re not wrong. Or stupid. All it means is that they’re religious.

In my previous post, I said that religion is not the enemy—because it’s not. But that doesn’t mean religious people have a free pass to be stupid: Stupidity demands to be challenged, whatever it’s based on.

Here’s an example: If a rightwing religionist quotes one of those fake online polls as if it’s real, then it’s fair game to point our how silly they’re being for doing so. The issue isn’t their religious beliefs, it’s their exploiting an entertainment device to pretend it has any real-world validity whatsoever. Because such polls never do.

Similarly, if they use discredited social science research as if it’s legitimate, then calling them out on that is not the same as attacking their religious beliefs. Instead, it’s simply pointing out that their supposed “evidence” is no evidence at all.

All of which should be obvious, since no church I’m aware of worships social science research. For that matter, no religion places empirical research ahead of its own dogma. That’s not a criticism, just a fact.

The point is this: When religionists make secular claims—using research, history, reference to law, etc.—then those claims are subject to the exact same scrutiny as any other claim would be. No exceptions.

The reason this is an issue at all is that some conservative religionists take any challenge to their truthfulness or accuracy as an attack on their religious beliefs, and that’s just plain silly. No one really cares what beliefs people hold on matters religious or spiritual, but what they think on matters of verifiable science matters rather a lot: I can’t claim gravity doesn’t exist, to cite an extreme example.

So when religious people claim things about LGBT people generally, or LGBT parents specifically, they should expect to be challenged on those claims. Quite honestly, if they can’t stand such challenges, then they shouldn’t be engaging in debate on public policy because such debate demands harsh scrutiny.

Religion and politics/public policy are uneasy cohabitants. I think that’s as it should be—religion should not dictate public policy any more than government should dictate religious dogma. However, it’s also true that neither one is exempt from the criticism of the other.

In a free society, all ideas are debated freely and openly and those that make the strongest case prevail. Religious-based arguments don’t get a special pass or a leg up on the competition just because they’re religious. I believe that religious dogma must demonstrate intellectual vigour to compete with secular ideas, and not the other way around. That’s because secular ideas start with the presumption of inclusion and fact-based origin, while religious ideas, rightly or wrongly, are perceived to be lacking in those areas.

Secular people get things wrong all the time. The main difference between them and religionists is that secularists are generally more willing to consider the possibility that they’re wrong. As before, your mileage may vary.

Still, just because someone is religious doesn’t mean they’re not wrong. Or stupid. All it means is that they’re religious. And others are not. This is a healthy thing—really, it is!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Religion isn’t the enemy

Religion is not an enemy, though some of its adherents may be. Pedantic, semantic or even romantic, I think it’s an important distinction.

In the battle for the human rights of LGBT people, our richest, strongest and most powerful adversaries are religious people, right? Sort of. Many of those who don the cloak of religiosity are clearly frauds—a kind of “pray for pay”, in which they use religion to make money or to gain political power, or both. Those people are no more religious than I’m from the planet Mars, but their claiming to be “true” Christians (or whatever) sullies the name for everyone else.

That’s the first important distinction. Because for every loud-mouthed religious bigot who tries to use their religion as a weapon to beat others into submission, there are calm, rational people who would never even think of forcing others to accept their beliefs—even when they think the other person is wrong.

Similarly, not all religious belief is equivalent—not even among the most fundamentalist religious believers, the vast majority of whom are not out in the streets trying to make homosexuality illegal, for example, though many probably believe it should be.

What all of this means is that belief isn’t the issue—actions are. That’s because what a person thinks, feels or believes may or may not be interesting to anyone else, but neither is it a threat to anyone until it becomes action.

I mention all this because the most common feature of the fight over marriage equality between religious activists and our side is that there’s too much heat and not enough thought.

I could list all the thousands of ways those religious activists are wrong about LGBT people, I could debunk their claims (and I often do), but they wouldn’t hear me—they probably don’t want to.

The same thing is true especially among some of our friends on the left: They spend so much time attacking the religious beliefs of the right—saying their god is a myth and their religion a fraud—that they don’t even stop to look for a way they might be able to reach their adversaries, to crack the seemingly impregnable shield of religious certainty to connect with the human behind it.

Will Portman found a way: He came out, and now his father—a Republican US Senator from the State of Ohio—backs marriage equality. Sen. Rob Portman is the first—and so far ONLY—sitting Republican US Senator to do so. He didn’t change his mind because some activist screamed that his religion is a fraud, he changed because he loves his son.

The simple fact is that homophobia disappears when heterosexuals find out that someone they like, admire, respect—LOVE—is LGBT. The amount of formal research that proves this is staggering: The best way to achieve equality for LGBT people is for LGBT people to come out everywhere to everyone. It is our humanity that is our strongest weapon in this war, not our slogans, and certainly not shouted insults.

Our adversaries lose when their slogans and shouted insults come up against the reality that we LGBT humans present—our humanity trumps their caricatures of us every time.

Our side’s urge to lash out comes from frustration and also from a real hurt that is caused when our adversaries not only lie about us, but win when they do so. But I suspect that at least some of the fury among our religious activist adversaries (the people, not their leaders) is based on their hurt at having their most basic, core beliefs mocked and dismissed.

Debating religious belief sometimes does involve mockery and dismissiveness. I can attest from personal experience that this is evident among the religious themselves (Protestants mocking Roman Catholics, for example). In a religious debate, that’s probably understandable. Maybe it’s even okay, at least sometimes.

But in the world of secular politics, we ought to at least try to engage humans, not stereotypes, and we ought to respect the right of people to hold whatever beliefs they want to, no matter how strongly we disagree with them—and even when we think their ideas are stupid.

Clearly our adversaries need to learn this, and many will struggle to do so. Accepting the humanity of LGBT people will require them to re-examine some of their basic beliefs. But their inability to easily move beyond their cartoon views of LGBT people, to grow in their own humanity as they accept ours, is no excuse for our side engaging in the very tactics we deplore when they’re used against us.

What I am saying is, as I have so many times before, we must be the change we want to see. If we want our adversaries to accept our humanity, and our human rights that are ours because of it, we must first act like human beings—even when our adversaries don’t—hell, because they don’t! The vast majority of people who are not religious activists are watching the show; which side do we want them to see as being more decent and human?

Religion isn’t the enemy, even if individuals acting under it sometimes may be. I believe we must be careful to not be our own worst enemy, either.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Rage of Thrones

There are times one must put a stake in the ground: The book was better. This video, the latest from the Axis of Awesome (some language NSFW), pokes fun at the folk who have discovered “The Game of Thrones”, perhaps unaware that the story first appeared as books. As so many stories have.

The repeated chant, “Hollywood cannot live up top to the power of imagination” is appropriate enough much of the time, but sometimes Hollywood gets it right. For me, the first “Lord of the Rings” was as I imagined it—but each subsequent one strayed more and more (I haven’t seen “The Hobbit” yet).

Each of us can point to a story that was better in the book or the movie. It’s to be expected. But to be unaware that a movie was a book first—well, that’s kind of a deal breaker, I think.

What do you say? Movie or book: Does it matter to you which is better?

Related: The last time I posted a video from the Axis of Awesome was July of last year.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Imagining a world without hate

This is probably my most pessimistic post ever. Your mileage may vary.

The above video is from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and asks people to imagine a world in which some of the best-known people who were murdered because of hatred were still alive. It asks further for people to imagine a world without hate.

Is that even possible?

I’m not sure I believe that it’s possible for humanity to end hatred for one simple reason: We don’t want to. We humans seem to need to hate other people—the person who has different religious beliefs, who has different skin colour, who was born in another country, who loves someone of the same gender—someone who is not like us, in other words. All human societies are built on a long history of hating “the other”, whoever is not of our clan, our village, our nation—whatever we think is acceptable at the moment.

Even if we wanted to overcome millennia of hatred, the people in power don’t want us to. If they keep us afraid of others, if they keep us hating other people, we won’t notice what they’re doing to us, and then they can do pretty much whatever they want. To keep ourselves and our family “safe”, we will accept terrible restrictions on our freedoms that we would otherwise fight to prevent. We also accept acts against the “enemy” that we would never tolerate in our homeland. Until we do.

Organised religion also has a vested interest in keeping hatred alive. If there’s only “one true religion,” then by definition all others are enemies of one’s god(s). This is the mindset used to justify wars, pogroms, inquisitions and ordinary political oppression. No religion has yet demonstrated a willingness—or capacity—to abandon that mindset; I don’t expect that to change.

The song used in the background for this video, John Lennon’s “Imagine,” begins by asking people to imagine there’s no heaven or hell—central tenets of the world’s dominant religions—“Imagine all the people living for today”. Then he also asks,
Imagine there’s no countries
Isn’t hard to do.
Nothing to kill or die for,
And no religion, too.
Imagine all the people,
Living life in peace.
I don’t think people can imagine that, not really. The point of the song, like the video above, is for people to imagine such a world. But because I don’t think we humans are truly capable of doing that, I certainly don’t think we’re capable of taking the next step: Making a world free from hatred, oppression, violence and war.

All the voting and politicking in the free world won’t change that, nor will the collected prayers of the people who believe in such things. The imagining will happen only when humanity is ready for it, and to date we’ve given precious little evidence that we’re ready.

Still, I can imagine a day when we might be ready. Imagine it, yes, but only just.

What say you?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Now she’s sorry…

Michelle Shocked has broken two days of silence to say she’s “damn sorry”. Does she mean it? Does it even matter?

I’ll admit that the cynic in me notes that the apology and explanation came after most (10 of 11, last I heard) of her upcoming concert venues had cancelled her shows. So, there’s an obvious need for financial self-preservation here (my first thought was, "Oh, NOW she's sorry!").

But let’s suppose she’s sincere in her remarks—and I have no reason to doubt that she may be sincere—does it even matter? She wrote, “I don't always express myself as clearly as I should.” Obviously! All the more reason she shouldn’t have ventured into that rhertorical territory, trying to, well, what, exactly?

As one of the commenters at the BuzzFeed link above put it:
So she spews homophobic hate quite a bit, but she is just stating opinions that some people in the world have. They aren't her actual opinions… She just wants the world to hear those opinions… kind of like preaching… WTF IS SHE EVEN SAYING I CAN'T EVEN…
Exactly. Her excuse is as rambling and confused as her original outburst was. So, her “I don't always express myself as clearly as I should” isn’t just a huge understatement, it’s an after-the fact excuse that itself isn’t expressed clearly.

For me personally, this changes nothing. As I said two days ago, for me she’s become, basically an item of nostalgia, and really nothing more. You could even say I was basically an “ex-fan” long before this all happened. So, while I won’t be spending any money on her work, that won’t exactly be a sacrifice.

The bigger lesson in this is that when artists treat their fans—their customers—with disrespect, they shouldn’t be surprised when there’s a strong reaction. Nor should they be surprised if that reaction costs them financially. People have a right to react—or to ignore the whole thing if they want to.

I have no idea if Michelle really meant her apology—or even what she was trying to say in it. Maybe if she finds a way to expresses herself more clearly she can win back some of the fans that she’s lost. By the sound of it, she’ll have some time on her hands to do that. This is a case where the fault lies in the star herself.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Democracy in action

In the USA, I used to lobby my elected representatives all the time. Here in New Zealand, I haven’t. In fact, the only time I’ve ever contacted my electorate MP about a bill before Parliament was to urge him to vote for the pending marriage equality bill.

He did—on the first reading. Then he voted against it on the second reading, which I didn’t expect. So, I wrote to him again. That email is below, followed by his response and my final response. In the interests of transparency, I’ve included the timestamps from the headers. I haven’t edited the text of any of the emails.

Here’s my “please explain” email:
Date: Friday, 15 March 2013 10:40 a.m.

Dear Dr. Coleman,

Late in August of last year, I wrote to you expressing my support for the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill. I urged you to vote in favour of this bill at all stages in order to enact it.

I was pleased that you voted in favour of the bill at its first reading. When I read that Prime Minister John Key had told the National Caucus to vote on the First Reading the way they intended to vote on final passage, I was again pleased because I assumed it meant you would vote for it at the Second Reading.

So, I'm writing to ask why you changed your vote on the Second Reading—why did you vote no when you voted yes on the First Reading? As you know, you're one of a handful of National MPs who changed their vote, and I'd like to know why.

Related, do you intend to vote against the bill at final passage?

Thank you for your time.

Kind regards,

Arthur Schenck
He replied:
Date: Wednesday, 20 March 2013 9:40 AM


Thank you for your email. I always said I would not guarantee my vote beyond the first reading. I supported the bill to the first reading as I believed a clear and factual debate at the select committee stage was in the public interest. My view is that it is too important an issue for parliament to be driving through, and that is why I voted for a referendum. I also took into account the clear tone of the feedback I received from the electorate. I will be voting against the Bill at the third reading.

Kind regards

Hon Dr Jonathan Coleman
MP for Northcote
Minister of Defence, Minister of State Services, Associate Minister of Finance
As is to be expected, I replied again. I tried to be as civil as my passions would allow. You’re free to judge on whether I succeeded or not.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Shocked by Michelle

What do you do when an artist whose work you like offends you by their words or deeds? Do you reject them and flush them from your life? Do you shrug and forget it? Or, something else?

1980s folk rocker Michelle Shocked has, some people are saying, ended her career with an anti-gay rant in San Francisco. It’s a bizarre story, documented fully by Chris Willman on the music blog of Yahoo! (the fullest recounting I’ve seen so far).

In a nutshell, the singer launched into what witnesses called “a tirade” against marriage equality and homosexuality generally. Accounts suggest that it was a pre-meditated attack. What is certain is that it was a stupid thing to do.

Leading credence the suggestion it was premeditated is that she made her remarks in San Francisco—the place where she could be guaranteed to cause the maximum amount of offence. She also was encouraging the use of Twitter, suggesting she wanted her remarks to have maximum impact—and cause the most offence, I’d add.

What confuses so many people is that she has identified in the past as bisexual (in an interview with Chicago’s LGBT Outlines, now merged with Windy City Times) and as lesbian. She has recanted the first and said the second was in error. Regardless, her fanbase has always been largely made up of LGBT fans and heterosexual leftists, sympathetic to the political causes of the LGBT fans.

Michelle’s leftist political activity is well known: She was arrested at an Occupy protest in 2011, she denounced George W. Bush and her best-known album, Short, Sharp, Shocked, has as the cover art a photo of her at a protest, being held in a choke hold by police.

For some fans, it seems impossible to reconcile Michelle’s politics with her rightwing religious beliefs, so they assume some sort of breakdown was involved. But Michelle belongs to an African American evangelical church, and it’s not unusual for them to be leftist on political issues—except for LGBT rights, where they can be as hard rightwing as their white counterparts. In that sense, Michelle seems to fit right in.

So: Where does this leave us? Some are pledging to throw out their CDs (or, these days, delete her from their iTunes playlist…), but I think that’s a little silly, since they’re already paid for. Donating the CDs to a thrift shop so a charity might make some money from them might make sense, but to me, throwing them away seems kind of pointless.

On the other hand, I won’t be giving any of my money to her NOW. One of my favourite albums back in the day was Short, Sharp, Shocked, which I had on vinyl. I’d planned on eventually buying it through iTunes, but I won’t be doing that now. In fact, today I deleted the album from my “wishlist” on iTunes (basically, a sort of shopping list of things I may eventually buy). And, I’m done—nothing more I need to do.

I don’t really care what she says or thinks based on of her religious beliefs. She’s entitled to them, and she’s entitled to express them. But she’s not entitled to expect me to subsidise her tirades against me and my human rights.

Of course, I’ve been down this road before, especially with Donna Summer. Then, too, I backed away from a singer I liked because of anti-gay remarks. Back then, in the pre-Internet Age, the veracity of the claims against her were less certain, and Summer spent many years repudiating the remarks and trying to make amends. Nevertheless, I never again bought any of her albums.

Michelle’s fall is well documented, even if the specific reason or motivation is a bit murky. It will be difficult for her to ever make amends, even if she wanted to (and I don’t know that she does).

The rightwing will claim that Michelle is being made a “victim” for expressing her religious beliefs. That’s utter nonsense—and will be, more often than not, a politically motivated lie. She knew damn well what her fanbase was, she knew how offensive her remarks would be to them—especially in San Francisco!—and she chose to disrespect her fans, anyway. She made her choice, and all choices have consequences—and that includes a choice to express personal religious beliefs.

People must be free to make their own decisions about how to regard Michelle Shocked from now on. Whether they buy her music or attend her shows—or, for that matter, whether they throw out CDs they already own—is and must be a personal choice. As for me, I won’t knowingly subsidise artists speaking out against me and my rights, and that includes Michelle.

Still, the harshest truth is that Michelle Shocked had become for me little more than a bit of nostalgia. Now, she won’t even be that. Nothing shocking about that.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


Earthquakes are pretty rare in Auckland. This afternoon, we had two within 5 minutes. It was pretty scary.

The first earthquake struck at 4:01pm. It was a light one, only magnitude 3.1, with a depth of 4km and centred about 15km from Auckland. I was sitting at my desk at the time, and felt a couple sharp jolts and rattling in the house, and my computer monitor swayed. It felt much stronger than any earthquake I’ve felt, certainly stronger than the first one I felt in Auckland, just over six years ago.

Roughly five minutes later, we had a second earthquake: It was a moderate quake, magnitude 3.9, about 6km deep and in roughly the same location, 15km from Auckland. This one was a much bigger deal: The house shook and rattled quite a lot and it went on for easily four times the length of the first one, though still only a few seconds (earthquakes seem to last longer than they really do). This one scared me, primarily because it lasted longer, and also because it was stronger. Nigel didn’t notice because he was standing in the kitchen at the time.

What also made the earthquakes scary is that they both happened under Mototapu Island, which is right next to Rangitoto Island—a dormant volcano that was the most recent to erupt, some 700 years ago. Experts say that earthquakes will precede a new volcano for days or weeks. They don’t know where or when one will emerge, just that it’s almost a certainty one will—eventually.

The video at top of the post is of Richard Woods, the Hazard Advisor for the Civil Defence and Emergency Management department of Auckland Council. He explains the earthquake risk for Auckland. In the video below, he talks about the volcano risk for Auckland.

It’s worth noting that the biggest threats to Auckland are still what they are for most of New Zealand: Flooding from storms. Coastal regions are also at risk from tsunamis, something that experts say are a bigger threat than they used to think.

Nowhere is without risk from natural disaster. Life on this planet is far more tenuous than any of us want to realise. So, with the possibility that some disaster could kill us or destroy everything we own, we all ought to live our lives as if it’s our last day—carpe diem, and all that. Most of us don’t do that, of course: We choose to believe that disaster won’t happen.

Disaster didn’t hit Auckland today. It probably won’t the next time the earth shakes here, either. One day, however, it may. And that’s enough to leave anyone a little shaken.

Update: GeoNet's press release has more information about the quakes, including links to information about the 2005 and 2007 quakes.

It rained today

It may seem a pretty ordinary thing to say, but it rained in Auckland today. Sadly, it won’t end the drought—New Zealand’s worst in 70 years.

Last Friday, the New Zealand government declared that the entire North Island is in drought. Much of the South Island is, too. We’ve had a total fire ban in Auckland for weeks (meaning, no open flames/fires, only gas BBQs, no hangi or umu). However, we haven’t yet had any water restrictions.

Other parts of the country have water restrictions as well as fire bans, and the shortage water for irrigation is severely affecting farmers, as shown in the video I posted last week. But, MetService says the rain we received today won’t be enough to end the drought. The Finance Minister said today that the drought could cost New Zealand $2 billion. Consumers have been warned to expect food prices to go up sharply.

We don’t have extensive gardens at our house, so we haven’t had to worry about plants. Still, I did have to water two potted yuccas and some potted parsley. Where we notice the effects of the drought the most is with our fences: The wood has become so dry after weeks of hot, sunny weather that boards have shrunk, making the gaps between the boards much wider—big enough to see through. That hasn’t happened before, but, then, this is a particularly bad drought.

Climate scientist Professor James Renwick told TVNZ’s Q+A programme that climate change means that "what we call a very warm year now will be a cold year in 50 or 60 years' time. What we'd call a dry summer now will be getting closer to the normal summer in another 50 to 100 years' time." I’m unlikely to live to see the worst of it, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t care about it. The choices and policies we make now could help prevent or, at least, improve the situation then.

So, the view out the window in the photo above was very welcome. In fact, I sat and watched it rain for a little while; since it’s been so long without it, it was kind of novel.

And that’s why for us it really was news that it rained today.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

More fact trouble

Facts continue to cause trouble for our rightwing friends. I decided to post about a new incident because I think it’s indicative of how wingnuts work.

But first, to set the stage, here are the Tweets with New Zealand's leading rightwing opponent of marriage equality that partly led to my post last night:
Rightwinger: “More problems with Wall’s study on gay parenting: We referred previously to a study quoted by Labour MP Louisa [Wall, sponsor of the marriage equality bill; this was autoposted by Networked Blogs and was truncated]

Me: I said that the rightwinger’s “ONLY anti-gay study doesn't say what he claims. In fact, NO study does.” I included a link to the American Sociological Association press release on their amicus brief.

RW: “tell your mate Paul Amato - whoops!”

Me: “The ‘whoops’ is yours, actually. If you'd actually read Amato's review, you'd know he found significant problems with Regnerus.” Okay, a little snide, but that’s as negative as I got.

RW: “but still says its the best so far. BIG whoops”

Me: “Sorry, no, it doesn't. Not at all. And you DID know that Amato was a paid consultant for the Regnerus study, right?”
This Twitter exchange is what led to last night’s post, partly because I wanted to flesh out why Amato’s actual paper didn’t support the rightwinger’s claims about it. Then, after I posted, it, a new exchange began when the rightwinger responded to a Tweet in which I said Amato’s paper “is about statistical methodology, NOT results. Anyone who READ Amato would know that.” This was no more negative than what I said in the exchange before last night’s post.

The exchange continued:

Friday, March 15, 2013

Troublesome facts

Facts are troublesome things. Get them wrong, your argument is lost. Do that often enough and your credibility is lost. Not that our friends on the right really care about any of that.

Anyone who’s engaged in the politics of “social issues”—especially marriage equality, abortion, etc.—has seen that the rightwing generally displays only a nodding acquaintance with facts. One of their favourite political tactics is to misrepresent facts to make them seem to imply something other than what they actually say. This is even more effective than making stuff up (which they have been known to do, too) because it has a veneer of believability.

Recently I’ve been having some Twitter exchanges over the Regnerus study, which the rightwing says “proves” children of same-gender couples fair worse than children of opposite-sex parents. Except, of course, it doesn’t.

The study’s author, Mark Regnerus, admitted that the study wasn’t even about gay parenting. More recently, we’ve learned that the study was intended to sway the US Supreme Court on two marriage equality cases it’s considering.

That hasn’t stopped our friends on the right from constantly using the study, anyway. In fact, New Zealand’s most vocal far right religious opponent of marriage equality has made the study a central part of his political campaign.

As part of an attack on the supposed flaws in a pro-gay study (ironic, considering he holds up the deeply flawed Regnerus study as being unassailable), he wrote: “This is why sociology professor Paul Amato, chair of the Family section of the American Sociological Association and president of the National Council on Family Relations, (no friend of Regnerus!) wrote…” However, Amato was a paid consultant to the Regnerus study. “No friend”? Well, he clearly wasn’t an enemy!

The quote our adversary uses is this: “The Regnerus study is better situated than virtually all previous studies to detect differences between these groups in the population”. The problem is that this is NOT about the study or its conclusions, but about the statistical methodology alone (The quote used is in “Section 2.2 Statistical Power”, “The well-being of children with gay and lesbian parents”, Social Science Research 41 (2012), p722).

What Amato actually said about the study—and the way it’s being used by conservatives (in the US and New Zealand) is quite different. Here’s what Amato wrote that the conservatives don’t want you to know about:
Some observers may believe that the findings from the Regnerus study have implications for issues such as child custody, adoption, and same-sex marriage. Readers should be cautious, however, before deriving policy implications from these findings.

It would be unfortunate if the findings from the Regnerus study were used to undermine the social progress that has been made in recent decades in protecting the rights of gays, lesbians, and their children.

“The well-being of children with gay and lesbian parents”, Social Science Research 41 (2012), p723.

Not at all what New Zealand’s religious rightwing implied he said—not even close! Amato goes on to list all the reasons why the study cannot and must not be used the way the rightwing is using it, concluding, “these findings—and for that matter, any social research findings—should not be used to restrict the civil rights of any group of individuals.”

This isn’t the first time that the rightwing has misrepresented and distorted facts in an increasingly desperate attempt to score political points. As with so many previous examples, their tactics wither when exposed to the harsh sunlight of truth.

We’re all entitled to our own opinions, but we’re not entitled to our own facts. Democracy demands that we use facts and not try to spin or distort them. But our friends on the right seem to feel that winning is the only thing that matters, that the end justifies the means, and distorting facts is okay if it advances their political agenda. It’s not.

Facts are troublesome things. In the end, they’re always the undoing of those who would ignore them, as our friends on the right are learning the hard way. Mainstream people, who value truth and facts, will continue to help them learn that lesson.

Read it for yourself: A PDF of Paul Amato’s paper is available online.

Update March 16: Last night, after I published this post, I got into another Twitter exchange about this with New Zealand's leading rightwing opponent of marriage equality. I've decided to add a new post about it, rather than try and cram it all into an update to this one. That post is here.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

That new old guy

Nothing but a name has changed in Rome. Up to a point, I couldn’t possibly care less who the catholics choose as their leader. What they think or do within their churches has nothing to do with me.

However, popes never stay in their churches, do they?

Pope Jorge Bergoglio is, despite the saccharin gushing in the media, just like all the other old men who run the church: Conservative and stuck in the past. Within the walls of his church, that would be irrelevant for most of us, but popes seek to force those antique views on others, particularly through their church’s overtly political action.

Bergoglio is anti-gay, of course. As bishop, he said that homosexual acts are inherently “immoral”. He—unsuccessfully—opposed marriage equality in Argentina, calling it a "real and dire anthropological throwback" (whatever that means). In a letter he wrote about the bill he said: “Let's not be na├»ve, we're not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies (the devil) that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.” Nice guy.

He also opposes adoption by gay parents, calling it a "form of discrimination against children.” Interestingly, catholics and rightwing protestants alike frequently push that load of nonsense, which isn’t surprising given their political alliance in opposition to LGBT equality.

So, I don’t care that the men ruling the catholic church have picked yet another old conservative man to lead them. Nor does it impress me that he’s not European or that he’s from the Americas. If he was to lead his church away from its anti-gay political interference and crusades, there are plenty of people who might pay at least a little attention to what he says. As it is, he’s almost certain to remain a personal irrelevancy and a political adversary for many of us.

So, nothing has really changed.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

And they shall lead

Marriage equality is an inevitability in New Zealand and the USA. Everyone knows it—even those who want to deny reality. What’s especially obvious is the strong backing from young people.

The young people I know personally are not just accepting of marriage equality, and they’re not just incredulous that we don’t yet have it, they’re impatient to make it happen. Polls show that young people are the strongest and most determined demographic supporting marriage equality—so maybe it’s no wonder that older conservative folks are so worried.

The graphic above is, once again, from the Facebook page of United for Marriage. Even young Republicans are for marriage equality.

Earlier this week, the youth wings of every party in the New Zealand Parliament expressed their support for the marriage equality bill currently before Parliament. I don’t think they’ve ever had unanimous agreement on anything before.

The point is, young people are leading the way: Impatient with a status quo that denies fairness, liberty and equality to their friends, young people are demanding change. Existing political parties ignore them—or worse, reject them—at their peril.

The question on marriage equality is no longer if, but rather, how soon? Parties or politicians that stand in the way face oblivion. Young people—the future—have no patience with bigotry.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Drought: ‘The impact is huge’

This video from The New Zealand Herald talks with Northland farmers about the effect of this year’s drought—the third in four years. What I like about it is that they tell their own stories, not a reporter. The Herald posts videos like this from time to time and I think they can be really effective in telling the story in a way that regular journalism can't.

Freedom of religion

Freedom OF religion also means freedom FROM religion, or it means nothing at all. It also doesn’t mean one religion gets to force others to do as it demands.

These should be obvious to any thinking person: No religion has the right to force others to believe as they do, or to accept their religious beliefs as the only acceptable religious beliefs. All rational people agree that a Jewish person shouldn’t be forced to be a Roman Catholic and a Presbyterian shouldn’t be forced to be a Muslim. Obvious, right?

Then why should we tolerate mainstream and progressive Christian churches being forced to accept the religious beliefs of Assembly of God, Pentecostals, Baptists and other rightwing churches? Why do only the most conservative believers get to have religious freedom, but mainstream and liberal believers and the non-religious do not?

The answer, of course, is that the most conservative religious activists—Leviticans, they’re sometimes called—have long controlled the political debate on social issues. They alone dictate what is the only acceptable “Christian” position on issues like marriage equality and abortion—along with such godly topics as gun control and cutting taxes for the rich, of course.

When it comes to marriage equality, the far right religious activists have decreed that the only “Christian” position is to oppose all government recognition of same-gender couples (civil unions as well as marriage). To do otherwise would deny their religious freedom. However, the reality is far different: By failing to permit marriage equality, government is denying the religious freedom of the majority of people who disagree with the rightwing on this issue—even many who otherwise share the fundamentalists’ religious dogma.

When marriage equality exists, then all religions are equal and all are free to follow their religious tenets: Conservative churches can refuse to solemnise same-gender marriages, but mainstream churches can perform the weddings. Everyone wins, everyone has their religious freedom preserved.

Of course, the rightwing doesn’t see it that way because to them the world is made up of absolutes: Everything must be their way, no compromise and no exceptions, ever. It’s pitiable that they feel that way, but it makes no difference.

So, with the enactment of marriage equality, rightwing religious activists will feel they’ve “lost”, but the fact is that the ONLY thing they will have lost is the ability to dictate that all people must follow rightwing religious demands. They’ll still be able to teach whatever they want, no matter what the majority of us think about it—they simply will NOT be able to force everyone else to bow down to them and their particular beliefs beliefs.

Of course, all of this is kind of funny to those of us who are non-religious: We frankly don’t care if fundamentalists are unhappy that mainstream and progressive churches will finally get religious freedom, too. Similarly, while it’s nice that mainstream churches will be able to perform wedding ceremonies for same-gender couples, we don’t really much care if they do or not. The affairs of churches don’t concern us.

However, we’re very concerned about the most conservative religionists being allowed to dictate that everyone—religious and non-religious alike—live according to the rightwing activists’ religion. Um, no. Many of us don’t believe in their religious worldview and we are not bound by their religious beliefs. In fact, no one is: Freedom of religion always means freedom from religion or it means nothing at all.

Monday, March 11, 2013

I broke this blog

I broke my blog. Well, no, I actually broke Firefox, and that means I can’t use my blog properly. Damn Facebook!

Let me make that less confusing.

Facebook recently announced plans to tap into data about users to deliver targeted ads specific to individual users. Nothing new in that concept, but it is quite extensive. According to the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), Facebook’s partners will:
“…obtain information gathered about users through online means (such as through cookies when users surf the web) as well as through offline means (such as through loyalty cards at supermarkets and product warranty cards). Through the new relationship with Facebook, companies will be able to display advertisements to Facebook users based on data that these data brokers have on individuals.”
The issue for many users is the unprecedented collection of personal data in one place: “Your interests, age, shopping history (including offline), web browsing, location, and much more could be stored by these data brokers and utilized to market to you—even if you’ve been careful not to share this type of information with Facebook.”

So, I followed EFF’s instructions to beef up my privacy settings on Firefox. Almost immediately I had to start undoing them because I had to log in every time I went to check gmail or do a new blog post, among other things, and I got sick of that. But then I noticed some other things were going wrong, and Disqus is one of them: It never loads.

I accessed my blog in Safari and was able to see the comments just fine, and to leave one, so clearly I did something to break Firefox—and undoing everything hasn’t fixed it. Oops.

As it happens, however, I’m seriously considering going back to Blogger’s built-in commenting system. While I like the added features of Disqus, it’s proven to be a barrier to commenting. Since I installed it, only Roger Green, Jason and I have left comments, and I know some people who were unable to comment because their browsers don’t support Disqus, and some don’t know how it works.

If I do go back to the built-in system, however, it’ll be with comment moderation turned on. The whole point of switching to Disqus—and one of the things it did VERY well—was to stop having to deal with spam comments. I don’t want to go back to having to delete spam comments that were posted to my blog, and the only way to stop that is Blogger’s word verification (universally hated, it seems) and comment moderation (which I hate). In this case, majority wins.

Unrelated, you have noticed the new “AmeriNZ Blog” badge in the upper right corner of this blog. That’s actually from the “About the AmeriNZ blog” page on what I call my portal site (basically, a web brochure of the stuff I do, and the site I refer to when I’m on someone’s podcast). I added it here because I post notices of new blog posts to Google+, and if I don’t have any images in the post itself, it wants to use one of my standard blog sidebar images. Might as well have a generic one, I thought, so that’s the story.

Still don’t know what I’ll do about this commenting thing, though.

Update 12 March: My last "undoing" of the changes restored my access to Disqus (which, by the way, didn't work on anyone else's site, either—it wasn't just here on this blog), and that takes away any immediate need to for me to change commenting systems.

No time for it

I have a life, and it’s quite full and busy, thank you. So, even if I wanted to, I simply don’t have time to go around looking for people who are wrong on the Internet, even about things I care about very deeply.

Our adversaries apparently have different priorities.

Every day, I see things on the Internet from political adversaries. Sometimes they make me angry or disgusted, even outraged. Sometimes they make me laugh at how pathetic or absurd they are. Sometimes I may even pity them. But the vast majority of the time, I also ignore them.

I’m far too busy to respond to everything they say or do, no matter how whack it may be, but even when I have the time, there are far more important—and interesting—things for me to do. This is why I often don’t blog about the latest antics from someone on the far right.

There’s another reason I usually don’t bother: The folks on the far right feed off of our outrage. They say something that riles us up, people on our side respond, then the far right uses that response as a further weapon against us. This is particularly true when someone on our side uses intemperate language—even though their side can smear and defame us as much as they want (their side of the divide and debate applies far different standards to itself).

None of which is to suggest that our side shouldn’t respond—we have a duty to speak facts and truth in the face of deliberate lies and distortions from our adversaries. That includes calling on them on their tactic of playing their “victim card” whenever anyone dares to stand up to them.

However, most times are not those times, and most antics don’t require a direct response. After all, there are sites that do nothing but monitor and debunk our adversaries, so it’s not like our adversaries are getting away with being dicks.

Internet wars—trolling, even—is learned behaviour. People become unreasonably passionate in such exchanges as a matter of choice, and they can also choose to be more dispassionate, more detached. This has taken me years to work out, and sometimes even now I stumble (you should see my folder of angry blog posts that I never published!). Still, it’s because my life is full and busy that I’ve been able to gain some detachment. My life is far more interesting than engaging in Internet wars could ever be.

Busy or not, of course I’m aware that sometimes someone somewhere will be wrong on the Internet. One stark difference between my adversaries and me is this: I don’t care. They should try it. If they did, they might not be so negative and angry all the time. I certainly don’t expect to see that happen, of course, but I don’t really care: I simply have no time for it.

The well-known cartoon at the top of this post, "Duty Calls," is by cartoonist xkcd. Publication is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Cruelty in law

The Defense [sic] of Marriage Act is one of the cruellest laws Congress has passed in the past 20 years. Immigration is another example of why that is.

Because of DOMA, the federal government cannot recognise a legal marriage between two people of the same gender for any federal purpose. But if DOMA is struck down or repealed, the government could immediately allow US citizens legally married to a non-citizen of the same gender to sponsor their spouse for immigration—in exactly the same way that a US citizen can currently sponsor their opposite-gender spouse. This would happen even without comprehensive immigration reform—all that’s required is to get rid of DOMA.

But the true cruelty of DOMA isn’t merely that it threatens to break up binational couples because their legal marriages aren’t recognised. No, the real cruelty is that because those marriages don’t exist in the eyes of immigration officials, a bi-national same-gender couple that marries may actually make things worse for the non-American spouse because immigration will see the marriage as evidence that the non-American intends to stay in the US after his/her visa expires, and so, immigration may refuse a new visa or revoke the one already in place. Getting rid of DOMA will fix that cruelty, too.

However, DOMA isn’t the only reason for the gratuitous cruelty of immigration law, and in this area it’s cruelty shared by heterosexuals.

The graphic above, again from the Facebook page of United for Marriage, shows the flags of countries that recognise the relationships of same-gender couples for immigration. Many of those countries—including New Zealand—don’t yet have or recognise legal marriages of same-gender couples, but they nevertheless have policies to allow citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their same-gender partner, whether they’re legally married or not.

Any sort of truly comprehensive immigration reform for the USA must add recognition of non-married same gender couples, just like so many other countries have. It must also apply that to both US citizens and permanent residents, again, as other countries do (in fact, proposals for this in the US Congress often do include both). However, getting rid of DOMA is necessary for any of that to happen.

A new report from The Williams Institute says “there are approximately 267,000 LGBT-identified individuals among the adult undocumented immigrant population and an estimated 637,000 LGBT-identified individuals among the adult documented immigrant population.” That’s some 900,000 LGBT-indentified immigrants.

They also said about documented immigrants in same-gender relationships:
  • There are an estimated 113,300 foreign born individuals (naturalized citizens and non-citizens) who are part of a same-sex couple. An estimated 54,600 of these individuals are not US citizens.
  • An estimated 32,300 same-sex couples are binational (one US citizen and one non-citizen) along with 11,700 same-sex couples comprised of two non-citizens.
  • Nearly 7,000 same-sex couples that include two non-citizens (58 percent) are raising an estimated 12,400 children under age 18.
None of that will be easy. It may not happen any time soon. But to end the gratuitous cruelty toward binational LGBT couples and their families, they must happen.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Til death they do part

Sixteen Democratic US Senators have urged Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to keep granting waivers so that same-sex spouses can be buried in national cemeteries. Under present law, that’s the only solution.

At the moment, spouses (and sometimes dependents) are eligible for burial with a veteran at a national cemetery. However, the notorious Defense [sic] of Marriage Act defines spouse as a husband or wife of the opposite sex and forbids the US Government from recognising legal marriages of same-gender couples for ANY federal purpose—including veterans’ burials.

As a result, the National Cemetery Administration ruled that because of DOMA, non-military individuals in same-sex civil unions or marriages with a service member or veteran are ineligible for burial in a national cemetery or state veterans cemetery that receives federal funding. So, soldiers—even those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation—cannot be buried with their spouse if that spouse is of the same gender. That’s obscene.

Here’s what struck me about the linked story. The reporter wrote: “But Shinseki has the authority to approve waivers as he sees fit and did so based, in part, on evidence of a committed relationship between the Oregon couple.” So, he wants “evidence of a committed relationship”? Like a marriage certificate?! Not even that would be enough, thanks to DOMA.

The graphic above is from the Facebook page of United for Marriage , a coalition fighting for marriage equality throughout the USA. It highlights one specific case in which the spouse of a lesbian soldier killed in action was treated as if she didn’t even exist. The incident is taken from the amicus brief of OutServe-SLDN, which fights for the legal rights of actively serving LGBT military personnel (the story of Staff Sergeant Donna R. Johnson was reported at the time in the Advocate).

What both of these have in common is DOMA: Marriage equality alone isn’t enough when DOMA forbids the Federal government from recognising the marriages of same-gender couples. DOMA is not just vile and contemptible: It’s sickeningly cruel.

If this is how the US Government treats the men and women who fight and even die for their country, it’s no surprise that—thanks to DOMA—civilian Americans are also cruelly treated as less than second class citizens.

Another example will be the subject of my next post.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Wealth Inequality in America

This video, making the rounds on social networks this week, is basically a detailed infographic explaining the real wealth inequality in the USA. It’s far worse than most people realise. But those of us for whom politics is a bit more intense than a mere hobby, already knew all this. By sharing the video, I’m hoping a few more people will know it, too.

And, this week we saw the Dow Jones reach a new all-time high, at the same time real incomes for average Americans is declining. That says a lot right there.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Highlights of Prop 8 Amicus Briefs

In this video from AFER, Matt Baume highlights some of the many amicus briefs, urging the US Supreme Court to overturn California’s infamous Proposition 8 as well as the notorious Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). It’s an impressive bunch of support for marriage equality.

The Office of the City Attorney for the City and County of San Francisco has posted supportive amicus briefs in the Prop 8 case, along with a synopsis of the arguments made. Anyone looking for specific briefs or specific arguments should check out their excellent list.

Meanwhile, The Nation published veteran lesbian attorney Nan Hunter’s interesting look at the flurry of briefs and what they all mean—and what they suggest about the future for the Supreme Court as well as LGBT Americans.

Oral arguments on the Proposition 8 case will be held on March 26, and on the DOMA case on March 27. Decisions aren’t expected until mid-year.

And on we go.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Census Night

Tonight was Census Night in New Zealand, the time where every person in the country is counted. Well, it used to be that way—things are a little more evolved now.

I remember the first NZ Census I was part of, back in 1996. It was on paper, and everyone was to complete those forms on Census Night. I thought it was fun (yeah, yeah, I’m weird; move on).

By 2006, Kiwis could fill out the Census online (we didn’t). The next Census was meant to be in 2011, but it was cancelled due to the February earthquake in Canterbury. While I thought postponing was prudent, I didn’t think cancelling it completely was justified.

So, here we are in 2013 with the five yearly Census back on track. This year, we completed our forms online. It was fast, easy and, yes, even more fun for me (we’ve established I’m weird—can we move on?). Kudos to the folks who put the website together!

There were some oddities this year. The form asked if the address we have was the same one we lived at in 2008, five years ago. Normally, it would ask about the previous Census (2006), which would be seven years ago, so they just stuck with the same time frame—but we lost two years!

One of the most interesting questions on the Individual Form (blue, in the photo above) was on religion. There’s speculation that New Zealand may be about to become the first Western country to have a majority of its population defining itself as having “no religion”. This is the option I chose (as illustrated), not for political reasons (something I don’t support doing), but because it’s true. Oddly, my first census answer wasn’t motivated by a desire to be so accurate.

Back in 1996, I said my religion was “Lutheran”, partly because I knew there weren’t many in New Zealand, but also because it was part of my historic identity. Still, inaccurate as this may have been, I was like a lot of Kiwis: Claiming to be Christian when I never, ever, went to any church.

Now, 17 years later, I absolutely have no religion, and said so tonight. I haven’t been in a Lutheran Church in the better part of 25 years, and in other churches only for weddings and funerals, and few of them.

Back in 1996, I answered another question in a novel way: I said my ethnicity was “American”. While on US Census forms I’d talked about my coat of many colours ethnicity, I realised that here in New Zealand none of that mattered: I was just an American. I’ve chosen that as my ethnicity in every NZ census ever since.

I find the Census fun not just because I’m a statistics and demographics geek, but also because it’s the one time we regular people are counted and considered when making a snapshot of the mosaic that is New Zealand on Census Night—it’s the night we count. Sure, the resulting statistics are used to determine things like where government will spend money and on what, but for me the real selling point is that it let’s us look at the nation as it is, not just as we imagine it to be.

Well, that, and I like it because I’m weird.

Selling NZ down the Mighty River

Today, I registered to buy shares in Mighty River Power, even though I oppose the Government’s asset sales plans. It’s a purely defensive move.

Yesterday, the National/Act Government announced the first state-owned company to be sold off in its asset sales programme, Mighty River Power. Today New Zealand citizens and residents could register their no-obligation interest in purchasing shares, and I did.

The Government’s legislation doesn’t limit sales of the shares to New Zealanders, but—without anything to base it on—Prime Minister John Key claims he’s “confident” they can achieve “85-90%” of the shares being sold to New Zealanders. How, exactly?! Few New Zealanders own shares as it is, and there’s no reason to think there will suddenly be more who can afford the minimum $1000 to buy these shares—in bad economic times, no less.

The government is dual listing the shares with the NZ and Australian share markets to make it easier for foreign buyers to purchase shares. That’s not the only reason that even if the government achieves its goal of NZ ownership of shares, ultimately, the shares will end up in foreign ownership.

As previous big NZ share floats have shown, after the initial hype ends, the share price will drop. Kiwis—who will have lost money on their investment in bad economic times, and many of whom will have had no experience owning shares—will then sell off the shares at a loss. So, it’s probable that in six to nine months after listing, most of the float shares—maybe even that magic number of “85-90%”—will be in the hands of foreigners.

The National/Act Government is doing this despite the fact that retaining Mighty River Power would return far more over ten years than they will get by selling it now. National/Act are doing it despite the fact that all New Zealanders already own these assets, so selling them off amounts to transferring New Zealanders’ shared national wealth to private (mostly foreign) owners.

Labour Leader David Shearer, the Leader of the Opposition, put the issue plainly:
“Currently our state assets are 100% Kiwi owned. This programme will mean New Zealanders lose their assets. Kiwis are being asked to purchase what they already own.”
The problem is that the Tories fundamentally disagree with state ownership of much of anything—that's their motivation not just for asset sales, but also charter schools and privatised prisons and the so-called "public/private partnerships". All of these are about transferring taxpayer money and our national wealth to private companies and wealthy individuals—it’s all about increasing profits for the elites.

It was obvious that nothing could stop asset sales from going ahead. The referendum promoted by Labour and the Greens was always irrelevant: The National/Act government was going to sell state-owned assets no matter what. If the referendum had happened before the pre-ordained asset sales decision was announced, they would have ignored it. If the court had ruled against them, they would have legislated.

So, the shares will be sold, no matter what any of us thinks about it. I think that Kiwis who can should buy the shares and hold onto them. One day, a more sensible government may be willing to buy them back, and that’d be much easier if most shares are in Kiwi ownership. Every share Kiwis don’t buy will end up in foreign hands, and it’s in our national interest to prevent yet another power generator from falling into foreign ownership.

Even if a future government doesn’t buy them back, at least we’ll keep one power generator in New Zealand ownership. We won’t be able to keep the big investors from demanding ever-rising power prices to pay for ever higher dividends (profits) paid to their foreign bank accounts, but maybe we can slow them down a bit. With the asset sales happening no matter what, this is the only thing we can do to protect ourselves.

There is a fundamental, deep and profound difference between National/Act and Labour/Greens—asset sales is only the most obvious and well known. There's plenty more that National/Act will do to New Zealand—unless we vote to change the government. For my money, so to speak, the 2014 elections can’t come soon enough.

The title for this post comes from David Shearer on Facebook.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Capture and release

Week before last, I posted a video of the Amazon ad for their Kindle Paperwhite. It didn’t even last a day before it was gone, the victim of rightwing chicanery.

The day after I posted the video, anyone clicking on it in my post got a message: “This video has been removed as a violation of YouTube's policy against spam, scams and commercially deceptive content." As I said in a comment to my post, “This is definitely a WTF?!! moment!”

It turns out that the video, which was eventually released from the block, was a casualty in the cyberwar between the Left and Right. Regardless of which side is doing it, it’s pretty despicable.

The video above is a clip from “Turf Wars: How Corporate America Is Faking A Grassroots Revolution”. From the YouTube description:
This clip shows Austin James of American Majority training tea party activists on guerrilla internet tactics to "control the online dialogue". The footage was shot at the 2009 American Liberty Tour, run by a group of libertarian groups tied to real-estate mogul and Koch associate Howie Rich. The clip is taken from a section of the film showing how libertarian/free-market groups are recruiting tea party protestors into their cause.
In the clip, Austin talks about going on Amazon, searching for “liberal” books and giving them all one star “reviews”, while also giving rightwing books five stars. He admits he didn’t actually read the books.

Similar tactics are used on YouTube, where—as with the Amazon commercial—rightwingers flag a video as spam. If enough of them do it—and there are a lot who will—YouTube removes the video unless the victim of the guerrilla political activism can convince YouTube that the video is NOT spam.

The false spam complaints are used because copyright complaints require evidence (and Google publicly documents takedown notices in the interest of transparency), and because the “offensive” flag almost never gets a video taken down because Google doesn’t censor content (apart from banning things like porn, some kinds of violence, things like that); it doesn’t take down videos merely for upsetting people’s political sensibilities.

So, for LGBT content, or other content that is LGBT-supportive, rightwing attackers flag it as spam as the only way they can get gay-positive videos taken down.

The Left does this, too. For example, in the past, Left-ish folks would use that Amazon one-star tactic. However, it’s completely unclear which side started that.

Left-ish Twitter users used to report rightwing accounts as spam, getting them blocked and the account suspended (“spam blocking”, it’s called). Suspended accounts are said to be in “Twitter Jail”; the Right called it “Twitter Gulag”. In response, the rightwing formed what they called the “Twitter Gulag Defense Network”. The idea was that accounts with large numbers of followers don’t get blocked, so they pledged to follow each other to ward off attacks.

Ironically, the rightwing then used the very same “defense” group to launch spam blocking attacks on liberals and progressives—doing the very thing they were supposedly against. The temptation to “get” their political adversaries was clearly too great for them to resist.

There’s nothing new about abusing systems to attack adversaries. Four years ago, my podcast was attacked through iTunes reviews, as were many other GLBT podcasts at the same time. In that case, however, it may have been some sort of personal vendetta (we’ll never know for sure). But the mechanics are the same, regardless of motivation (as an aside, I turned that negative experience into a positive one, because it inspired the name for my podcast with Jason, 2Political Podcast).

For me, the bottom line is that I don’t care what the motivation is for “guerrilla Internet tactics”—personal, political or commercial, I think it’s all pretty despicable. However, I think that politically motivated attacks are particularly smelly. I agree with one commenter on the YouTube video posted above: “If you can't defend your ideas with honest, careful reasoning, then you ought to seriously wonder if you're subscribing to good ideas.”

It doesn’t matter that the attacks usually fail in the end, and the person victimised in the attack is eventually freed. The goal is harassment and to "control the online dialogue". Apparently they can’t win a political battle based on the merits of their ideas alone, and to me that’s the worst part of this whole thing.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

‘Let’s treat everybody fairly’

In this video, President Obama talks about how the fight for marriage equality is based on the ideas on which the USA is founded. He talks further about his personal views and how that relates to his administration’s brief on California’s Proposition 8.

What I find remarkable about this is that the President of the United States is talking about ME and my rights. The president is talking about my human rights and, basically, my humanity. I can honestly say that 20 years ago—hell, TEN years ago—I couldn’t have imagined a US President arguing that the equal protection provisions of the US Constitution apply to GLBT people and our human right to marry.

I still find this absolutely extraordinary.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Busy day for marriage

This has been a very busy day for marriage equality, with a lot of really positive things happening. So, it’s been a good day.

The biggest news of the day, of course, was that the Obama Administration has filed an amicus brief with the US Supreme Court, asking it to strike down California’s Proposition 8, which took away the right of gay couples to marry.

US Attorney General Eric Holder issued a statement the US government’s filing , saying in part:
“In our filing today in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the government seeks to vindicate the defining constitutional ideal of equal treatment under the law. Throughout history, we have seen the unjust consequences of decisions and policies rooted in discrimination. The issues before the Supreme Court in this case and the Defense of Marriage Act case are not just important to the tens of thousands Americans who are being denied equal benefits and rights under our laws, but to our Nation as a whole.”
I think he’s absolutely right, and presented what is the essential compelling reason for the Obama Administration to enter into the fray on this issue: “To vindicate the defining constitutional ideal of equal treatment under the law.”

Several other briefs were filed today, which was the last day to do so, and chief among the other ones was the amicus brief from the American Sociological Association. I mentioned this brief in a post earlier today, saying:
The ASA brief demolishes the studies used by the rightwing—including here in New Zealand—to argue that gay people are bad parents and, therefore, should not be allowed to marry. It seems obvious to me is that what the ASA did was show that the radical right is promoting prejudice, not scientific fact.
Meanwhile, a couple days ago, 131 Republicans also filed an amicus brief arguing that gay people have a constitutional right to marry. The tide is clearly turning—no, it’s already turned. In fact, the radical right is SO upset about this particular development that the Vatican’s front man, Brian Brown, attacked the list of Republicans as not “actively in politics”, apparently completely ignorant of the fact that two of the signators are sitting US Representatives. Oops.

So, this has been a good week in the struggle for marriage equality, and an especially good day. We’ll see plenty more of both.

Parenting in the debate

The one thing that radical rights screams loudest when fighting against marriage equality is, “Think of the children!” It’s among their most offensive political slogans.

When the Government Administration Committee reported back to the NZ Parliament on the marriage equality bill, they had this to say about adoption:
We acknowledge that some people feel very strongly about the issue of adoption of children by same-sex couples and transgender people. If the bill were to pass, it would make consequential amendments to the Adoption Act 1955 that would have the effect of enabling married same-sex couples to adopt children lawfully, as any married couple may do.

Many opponents of the bill are not in favour of same-sex couples being allowed to adopt children. Some argue that if changes to adoption laws are to be made this should be done through a bill that specifically amends the Adoption Act 1955. These opponents also consider a family with a mother and a father married to each other to lead to the best outcomes for children.

We note that currently under the law a homosexual or transgender person may legally adopt a child, but same-sex couples may not. Such a position seems absurd. The amendments we recommend will ensure that married couples are eligible to adopt, regardless of the gender of the adoptive parents.

We note that many families already exist which comprise children and same-sex or transgender parents. However, both parents do not have access to the full range of legal rights that married heterosexual couples have. We consider that allowing same-sex couples to marry would grant an appropriate legal right to those families who are already raising children. [emphasis added]
There are two important points in this. First, GLBT individuals can already adopt children, just like single heterosexual people can. The second point is that, for couples, only married couples can adopt children and LGBT people are forbidden to marry, so such couples cannot adopt—and that's really all this is about. This matters not just for the absurdity of this weird legal second-class citizenship for couples but not singles, but also because it puts existing families on entirely different legal standing to families headed by a heterosexual couple.

None of this matters to our radical rightwing opponents because to them, LGBT couples can never be good parents—ever. Many of them try to link homosexuality with paedophilia (and those that do so are rightly classified as anti-gay hate groups). But most of our far right adversaries try to paint gay parents as essentially worthless, never as good as “real” (meaning heterosexual) parents. The trouble is, it’s a political position based on a stack of lies and distortions.

Today, the American Sociological Association filed an amicus brief in the US Supreme Court case seeking to overturn Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that stripped same-gender couples of the right to marry. To prepare for their brief, the ASA reviewed all available research on parenting by gay people. “The results of our review are clear,” said ASA President Cecilia Ridgeway. “There is no evidence that children with parents in stable same-sex or opposite-sex relationships differ in terms of well-being. Indeed, the greater stability offered by marriage for same-sex as well as opposite-sex parents may be an asset for child well-being.”

The ASA brief demolishes the studies used by the rightwing—including here in New Zealand—to argue that gay people are bad parents and, therefore, should not be allowed to marry. It seems obvious to me is that what the ASA did was show that the radical right is promoting prejudice, not scientific fact.

Here in New Zealand, where single LGBT adults can already adopt children, the anti-gay prejudice of our opponents is even more obvious precisely because adoption IS possible already. It seems particularly cruel for the rightwing to try and victimise families of same-gender couples based on nothing but anti-gay prejudice.

But the thing I find most offensive about this “debate” is that we’re even having it. It’s not just the fact that of course LGBT couples make good parents, it’s that raising children is not a prerequisite for marriage! We don’t require heterosexual couples to produce children by a certain time, nor do we prevent people marrying who don’t have children because of choice or nature. Forbidding same-gender couples from marrying because radical rightwingers don’t like gay people and hate the idea of them raising children is not a rational reason for opposing marriage equality.

The radical right bases its position on their personal religious views, which is their right. They also are free to say they think gay people make awful parents. However, they are NOT entitled to pretend that science (which, let’s face it, most of them deny unless they want to use it against things or people they don’t like) backs them up. As I often say, people are entitled to their own opinions, but they’re not entitled to their own facts.

Yes, let’s think about the children. Let’s ensure that all families—straight and gay—have the same legal protections and stability provided by marriage. Let’s try to ensure that all children have loving parents, and stop worrying so much about the genders of those parents.