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Culture & Society Archive



December 2017



Can We Politic Without Lies and Hyperbole?

Written by , Posted in Culture & Society, Taxes

I think it’s clear that our current political discourse is unsustainably broken. While these issues have always existed, the degree to which distrust and animous have come to characterize mainstream political discourse feels unusual. At some point, this will have to change. But judging by the absurd (and shockingly dishonest, even to me) reaction to the Republican tax reform package, that day is not today.

For context, the tax plan’s centerpiece is the slashing of the corporate tax rate from a uniquely high and uncompetitive 35 percent down to 21 percent (which, when combined with state taxes, will move the U.S. to near the OECD average).

Just a few years ago, the need to cut corporate taxes was considered a bipartisan consensus. Obama wanted to cut it to 28%. Was that also a “windfall” for CEOs, as some on the left claim? In which case, why was it the desire of Patron Saint of Liberalism Barack Obama? Did he “chose corporate profit over the American people” as Sen. Booker claims of Republicans?

Presumably, Obama wasn’t beholden to Republican donors (which we are told repeatedly by the leftwing hordes on twitter is the real motivation behind reform), so what was his motivation? It was the same basic one as that of Republicans: to bring the U.S. corporate tax rate into competitive alignment with the rest of the world and make it an attractive destination for business investment. That Republicans went for a lower rate strikes me as a fairly ordinary policy disagreement unworthy of the hysterics we are currently seeing from the left.

The same nonsense is being said about the individual rate cuts. Rather than simply cut across the board and preserve the current progressivity of the tax code, Republicans went out of their way to stack the deck in favor of the poor and middle-class, even undercutting the goal of simplification by increasing spending subsidies in the tax code. The result of this approach is that the wealthy will end up shouldering an even higher share of the total tax burden than before. This ought to please the left, but they have latched on to the fact that top earners are getting any of the cuts to portray it as a giveaway to the wealthy. Tim Kaine, for instance, inexplicably says that “the middle class foot the bill for a big tax cut for the top,” despite all evidence to the contrary.

This rhetoric has been typical of the tax reform process. Thought to be among the last remaining Democratic Senate moderates, a designation one must now question, Sen. Mark Warner said the bill was “the single worst piece of legislation that I’ve seen since I’ve been in the Senate.” Nancy Pelosi went even further, having also called tax reform “armageddon,” and said it was the worst “in the history of Congress.” Worse, apparently, than even the Fugitive Slave Act, to pick one of several morally appalling legislative episodes from our history. Such rhetoric is, needless to say, lacking in the sobriety department.

A glance at social media shows that the Democratic base has taken cues from their leaders. They even showed up at the vote to debase themselves with lame slogans like “kill the bill, don’t kill us.” Though given the predictions of doom, it’s a wonder that anyone is even left alive after the FCC rolled back its Title II power grab, in the name of “net neutrality,” over the internet.

I don’t want to pick exclusively on the left, it’s just that tax reform is on my mind and they’re providing the timeliest example of the problem. But it must be pointed out that Donald Trump ran an entire campaign on the premise that no issue is too small to be worthy of lies and exaggerations. Just about every subject he addressed was required to be either the best or worst thing ever (if that subject was a person, which moniker was warranted was entirely dependent on whether they said good or bad things about Donald Trump).

As Trump found during the campaign and Democrats are finding now, use of such hyperbole can succeed in riling up supporters, but it comes at the cost of stripping all nuance from every issue. That, in turn, makes negotiation and compromise all but impossible. Republicans, like Democrats with Obamacare, were able to narrowly pass a top legislative priority on a strict party-line vote, but it’s clear that moving legislation is getting increasingly difficult. I’m not normally one to fret about an absence of political action–I generally prefer it–but the frantic yearly scramble to pass a spending bill because Congress can’t be bothered to appropriate leads to all sort of suboptimal outcomes.

Many of those who expressed concern about the quality of the campaign are now jumping at the chance to condemn with the most over-the-top and outlandish rhetoric a tax overhaul that, while sweeping in its scope, is fairly mainstream center-right in its ideological placement. So long as public discourse is only worthy of concern when it’s politically convenient, the problem will not be resolved.



June 2015



Don’t Cry Wolf on Religious Liberty Infringements

Written by , Posted in Culture & Society, Liberty & Limited Government

Respect for religious freedom has deep roots in American society. Many of those who came to America did so to escape religious persecution, and they brought with them a profound understanding of the importance of protecting such personal rights from oppressive rule, be it by the hand of monarchy or democratic majority. Thus why Constitutional protections for religious freedom were included in the First Amendment.

Yet many areas where religious freedom is said to be under attack are actually examples of a different sort of problem. No one should be forced to make a gay wedding cake, for instance, simply because they make their living as a baker (assuming they are their own employer). The idea that one must sell to all in order to sell to any contradicts basic Constitutional tenets, yet is an idea that has wormed its way into Constitutional doctrine thanks to the misguided idea of “public accommodations” in non-discrimination law, and long eviscerated protections for economic liberty. Focusing on the subset of cases where objections are made on the grounds of religious sensibilities misses the larger issue, which is that the freedom of association and basic liberty should allow all the right to choose with whom they do or do not engage in commercial exchange – for any reason, be it religiously motivated or not, that the individual sees fit.

But there are also ways in which religious freedoms are actually in danger of being undermined today. Under the direction of Houston’s first openly gay mayor, Annise Parker, the city last year subpoenaed sermons and other pastoral communication from local churches. They were ordered to turn over any communication relating to a contentious local non-discrimination law, as well as “all speeches and sermons related to Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality and gender identity.” She backed down after national uproar over the flagrant abuse of power, but the episode is both illuminating and disturbing.

Religious concerns from the fallout of Obergefell are also not without merit, as admitted by U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrili when he acknowledged during oral arguments that tax-exempt status “is going to be an issue” with the Court’s potential (and now real) ruling that the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage (rightly) violates Constitutional protections. The ACLU has also decided that it’s no longer on board with the whole religious freedom thing now that Christians might be the ones in need of legal protections. And given the proven vindictiveness of today’s cultural winners, more attacks ought to be expected.

Which is all the more reason why it’s a shame that some Republicans, along with the Texas Attorney General, are insisting that county clerks in Texas or elsewhere ought to be able to be able to “opt out” of issuing same-sex marriage licenses if they have religious objections. This is a misapplication of religious liberty.

Look, we’re not talking about clergy or non-state wedding officiators here, who like bakers ought to be able to decide whether they wish to take part in a same-sex wedding or not. These are people whose job it is to process paperwork and issue wedding licenses. County Clerks are municipal employees, be they elected or appointed, and therefore agents of the state. And agents of the state don’t get to dictate actions of the state based on personal whims. If they won’t or can’t do the job required of them and fulfill their duties as public servants then they ought to resign.

Individuals have every right to not work at a place that requires issuing same-sex marriage licenses, but what they don’t have is the right to insist that they not be replaced by someone who will do the entire job and not just part of it. Anyone with true convictions should understand that sometimes upholding those beliefs means making sacrifices, including not working at places that as a fundamental part of the job necessitate violating those beliefs.

There are real threats to religious freedoms, and those who might wish to meet those threats with robust Constitutional protections shouldn’t try to expand the concept to its breaking point. I’m sure it’s not easy to have to choose between honoring ones principles or performing a duty that one currently under obligation to perform, but there’s no Constitutional right to not have to make tough choices.



February 2015



Safety is Overrated

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Culture & Society, The Nanny State & A Regulated Society

Modern obsession with risk avoidance is threatening our liberty and harming the development of future generations. I explain in my most recent column at EveryJoe:

Society overrates the prevalence of criminal and physical dangers to children, so parents fail to realize that it is the relative safety of their own children in their day-to-day activities that even allows them to obsess about the smallest of dangers. The playground equipment that many of us grew up on and survived just fine, for instance, is being torn down or cemented into place by panicked governments, and replaced with safety-first boregrounds that no child wants to use.

Aggressively trying to eliminate all risk that children face is likely to create more problems than it solves. Overzealous government bureaucrats and helicopter parents that refuse to grant their children any independence are doing the next generation a disservice. Obsessing over even tiny risks leads to decisions that deprive children not only of fun, but of opportunities to learn independence, confidence, and self-reliance.

It’s not just little kids we’re coddling, either. Universities – once a bastion for free wheeling debate, intellectual confrontation, and experimentation – are increasingly stifling debate and insulating students from any difficult experience by insisting on so-called “safe spaces.”

Today, any time an event features a speaker that doesn’t toe the politically correct, “progressive” line, it faces ritual denunciation by students and faculty alike. Assuming a speaker is not outright disinvited, the event may be accompanied by school administered “safe spaces” and counseling services for student traumatized by the mere presence of different views, as happened last year at Brown when a debate participant had the audacity to oppose the dubious rape culture narrative.

You can read the rest here.



January 2015



The War on Personal Offense

Written by , Posted in Culture & Society

There’s a lot that could be said about the attack on Paris-based satirical publisher Charlie Hebdo. It’s a horrific demonstration of Islamist barbarism. It’s also provided opportunity for western outlets like the New York Times to demonstrate their warped priorities and edit their own stories that accidentally reveal too much truth, and to cravenly refuse to print the Hebdo cartoons that so riled the terrorists despite their obvious newsworthiness.

These are important topics, but I won’t be addressing them here. Others are doing so quite well already. I want to focus on another aspect of the story, and that is its place in the liberty threatening war on personal offense.

Free speech is a required ingredient for a free society. It empowers citizens to be a check on both government and other social institutions that might overwhelm the individual. Through communication, individuals can combine their dispersed power to become a potent collective force.

The obvious threat to free speech is government, protection from which being secured by the First Amendment. But government is not the only threat. As much as there is a legal and protected right to free speech, there must also be cultural respect for free speech. And that means recognizing the value in letting others speak and be heard, even when you don’t like what they say. That doesn’t mean ideas cannot be criticized, merely that the exercise of speech should be respected and honored.

Unfortunately, there are strong currents developing aimed at devaluing speech. That they are cultural currents and thus do not implicate the First Amendment make them no less troubling, or the threat no less serious. The core of this threat is the growing belief that individuals have a right not to be offended, discomforted or otherwise upset by the speech of others.

And like most bad ideas, this one seems to be emanating most strong from universities, where a new generation of students insists that respect for feelings is more important than respect for speech. For instance, the University of Iowa pulled an anti-racism display because it featured newspaper coverage of racial tension and violence over the last century on a klansman sculpture. UI’s School of Journalism director even said that, “If it was up to me … I would follow the lead of every European nation and ban this type of speech.”

It’s not just administrators and eggheads, either. Students are often times leading the charge to censorship. Michigan State University students demanded that George Will be disinvited as commencement speaker because he wrote a column about the college victim culture and the absurdity of “micro-aggressions.” When students fail to prevent hearing thoughts they don’t like, they heckle and scream to drown out the speaker and ensure no one else can hear them either. It’s not just the US, either. Stepford students are busy halting dialogue and preserving their hugboxes in the UK as well.

These are deeply disturbing trends of which I’ve only just barely scratched the surface.  It’s disturbing because valuing comfort over the give and take of ideas first leads to stagnation as militant orthodoxy prohibits new ideas, and then eventually to oppression when majority views are no longer able to be challenged.

For free speech to have any meaning, there must be a right to offend. And for it to be effective, the right to offend must be absolute.



December 2014



A Moral Panic Over ‘Rape Culture’

Written by , Posted in Culture & Society

The folks at EveryJoe have been kind enough to offer me a platform for a weekly column under the title Free Radical. It will feature many of the same topics I address here, though are likely to be a bit more in-depth.

The first column is up today, and takes a look at the troubling emergence of a new moral panic:

Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Erdely’s sensational tale of a gang rape at a University of Virginia frat house has been unraveling practically since the day it was published. From the beginning, the article’s parade of sociopathetic characters – both the alleged perpetrators and the friends of Jackie, the pseudonymous accuser – were hard for many to believe. Other claims, such as the idea that Jackie was rolled around on broken glass for three hours without sustaining serious injuries requiring hospitalization, were simply nonsensical. It took only minimal scrutiny and the kind of basic fact-checking that should have preceded publication to poke major holes in the story, eventually forcing Rolling Stone to repeatedly backtrack and apologize.

Perhaps the final blow to the sordid tale came in the form of a Washington Post story featuring interviews with Jackie’s friends, who despite never being contacted by Erdely were portrayed as more concerned with their social status and popularity than getting Jackie help or justice. Not only do they refute that account, but they also claim that Jackie identified her alleged attacker to them, only to have it turn out that no such person attended the university or met the description provided.

Even more interesting than how Erdely botched the facts is why it happened.

Simply put, Jackie’s tale was too good to verify. It fit neatly the “rape culture” narrative that contends not only that the nation is suffering an epidemic of sexual assaults, but that the public is grossly indifferent to the plight of female victims, particularly on college campuses.

The rape culture narrative has become so ubiquitous that it has reached the level of a moral panic, with ideologues seeing signs of its influence everywhere. And like the moral panics that have come before, it is becoming a major threat to individual liberty.

You can find the entire piece here.



November 2014



Ignoring the President is Healthy for the Republic

Written by , Posted in Culture & Society, Liberty & Limited Government, Media Bias

President Obama’s immigration speech wasn’t carried live on the four major networks – NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox. He never officially requested the time from the networks because initial inquiries suggested the requests would all be denied. The White House is peeved, and its freelance propagandists in the media are none too happy either.

John Nichols of The Nation, for instance, is livid that networks didn’t jump at the opportunity to upend their schedules and force the President’s speechifying down their viewers throats. Inexcusably, networks chose “relentless profiteering” over being dutiful agents of the President’s political apparatus. That, he says, is “one important part of why this great democracy is not working as well as it could.”

Balderdash. The fact that private life goes on largely undistributed by the political machinations of a self-indulgent President is a sign of a restoring vitality in our republic.

A king might expect citizens to drop whatever they are doing to attend to every egotistic whim of the crown. An American president not only needs no such luxury, but ought not seek it. Except in the most serious of emergencies, the proper role of the president is to attend to enforcement of the law. Outside military affairs he is simply a chief executive, a glorified bureaucrat putting the ideas of Congress into practice. Certainly, he has a role in crafting law as well, but more so by exercise of political power than granted authority. But that political power has limits, as President Obama has experienced.

Americans should not have much tolerance for a President who seeks to grab society by the horns and steer it wherever he pleases. That has never been the American way, where individual rights and preferences are held in reverence.

Nichols ties the decision of the networks into what he sees as a broader battle for civic engagement:

Former Federal Communications Commission member Michael Copps has repeatedly warned in recent years of the threat posed to democracy by the “diminished and too often dumbed-down civic dialogue” that emerges when those who broadcast on the people’s airwaves fail to serve the people’s interest.

Copps explains, “Our country confronts challenges to its viability in some ways reminiscent of the 1930s, making it a national imperative that every American be empowered with the news and information essential for knowledgeable decision-making. Without that, the challenges go misunderstood, untended, unresolved. When our media, our press and our journalism catch cold, democracy catches pneumonia.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, sees the network neglect of a particular presidential address as just one measure of a broader crisis for democracy that results when media are no longer “educating the American people so that we’re debating the real issues.”

When these elites worry that Americans are no longer being educated about the “real issues,” what they mean is that they are no longer having their thinking done for them by those who know better. There is more information available than ever before, and it is no longer filtered through a regimented point of view. In a world of cable television and 24/7 news stations, the “network” distinction is all but irrelevant. Those who cared to see the speech easily could do so. What troubles Nichols and his ilk is that there were other choices available at all.

What they see as evidence of some crisis in political engagement, I see as a healthy awareness of the limited importance of collective action. What has always made America great is recognition that the everyday decisions of millions of free and productive people outweigh the preferences of a tiny, centralized few. The private must maintain supremacy over the public. The more that people tune out Washington’s self-indulgent and excessively frequent demands for attention, the more time is available for them to live their lives, exercise their liberty, and pursue their own happiness.



September 2014



Is Secession Acceptable Again?

Written by , Posted in Culture & Society, Foreign Affairs & Policy, Liberty & Limited Government

An interesting aspect of yesterday’s vote for Scottish independence is that it has Americans discussing political separation without all the unwanted historical baggage of the Civil War and race relations. That is, there have been substantive discussions even among Americans on the pros and cons of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom (they ultimately voted to stay) without anyone claiming the very idea of secession to be racist, as so often happens when it is considered within the United States.

Even though the Scottish vote resulted in affirmation of the union that forms the United Kingdom, the orderly acceptance of the vote stands in stark contrast to the threats of violence that come in response to even idle talk in the US. Just suggest that a state might leave the union, and you won’t have to wait long for indignant statists to wag their fingers and sarcastically warn about “how well that went last time.” In other words, try to leave the union and they’ll wage war upon you and burn your cities to the ground. In the name of unity, naturally.

If the British, who once fought a war to prevent the American colonies their independence, can agree that they want no unwilling subjects and indicate they would have accepted without bloodshed the will of the Scottish people to secede, then is it not time for Americans to stop threatening violence at long-shot prospects of political separation?



August 2014



Risks Come in Many Forms

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Culture & Society, Foreign Affairs & Policy, Gun Rights, Liberty & Limited Government, The Nanny State & A Regulated Society

The New York Times editorial board has some sound advice for Great Britain as it worries about the threat of home grown terrorists. It’s a serious problem, and one which the UK has largely invited on itself through a failed experiment in cultural appeasement that has only served to embolden extremism. Be that as it may, NYT editors are right to warn against overreactions that undermine civil rights by concluding that, “scrapping civil liberties should not be the first line of defense in a democracy.”

Terrorists pose a safety risk, and mitigating that risk should be done with respect to civil liberties rather than trampling them. But there are a great many risks in society, and unfortunately the NYT editorial board fails to consistently apply this principle on other issues. They have no problem curtailing rights for the illusion of security when doing so confirms their ideological biases, such as limiting speech in the name of removing money from politics, or scrapping the Second Amendment in the name of reducing violence.

In fact, just a day before sternly warning the Brits against overreacting to their homegrown extremism problem, the very same New York Times editorial board overreacted to a single gun accident caused by the irresponsibility of parents and an instructor that allowed a young girl who couldn’t handle the weapons and its kickback to shoot an Uzi, ultimately resulting in the instructor’s death. Not only did they use the unusual incident to finger wag at defenders of the Second Amendment and note in horror all the various ways in which gun enthusiasts enjoy their hobby, but they also demanded the restriction of rights in response. Citing a similar incident over half a decade ago (giving indication to  how rare these events are) where a young child accidentally killed himself at a gun range, the NYT editors praised his state of Connecticut for reacting by banning access to certain guns even at gun ranges for those under 16, regardless of the level of supervision, precautions taken, or capabilities of the shooter. They then lamented that there will be no “swift action in Arizona, where the gun culture is deeply entrenched.”

Rights are precarious things. They are at their most vulnerable when the populace is scared. The New York Times recognizes this when it comes to foreign threats, but fails to understand that domestic panics over extremely low risks of harm are just as dangerous.



August 2014



Lack of Police Accountability Will Breed More Ferguson’s

Written by , Posted in Culture & Society, The Courts, Criminal Justice & Tort

A number of troubling things are happening related to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. In the wake of the shooting death of 18-year old Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer, there have been looting, riots, and demonstrations. While theft and mindless destruction of property by looters shouldn’t be tolerated, residents have more than enough reason to be upset.

Witness descriptions paint Brown’s shooting as a deliberate homicide, yet police have refused to release the name of the officer who killed him. The police department predictably claims that Brown was the instigator and inexplicably attempted to take the officer’s gun, but police are notorious liars who routinely falsify reports to cover up wrongdoing. Sometimes they are punished, but given the frequency with which such actions are discovered, it’s quite likely that it far more often goes unnoticed. While it’s certainly possible that police are telling the truth in this case and that the witnesses are lying to get them in trouble, the public has every reason not to give them the benefit of the doubt.

It is, in other words, the constant and pervasive lack of accountability for police departments across the country that fuels tensions and distrust. Even when misconduct is clear, the thin blue line often serves to protect officers from punishment. The result is a frustrated public that sees little hope of justice when police misbehave. The casual dismissal of public concerns only fuels the notion that police don’t believe they serve anyone but themselves.

Often times misconduct and false reports are only discovered when video later comes to light. It would thus be of significant public interest for police to be monitored by video at all times. When a small California city put cameras on all their police officers, the result was a dramatic decline in the number of complaints against officers. Police, like their civilian counterparts, misbehave less when they are more likely to be caught.

Others rightfully highlight the growing militarization of police forces across the US. Federal grants have encouraged local police departments to acquire weapons of war for domestic use. Tiny towns are getting funds to build SWAT teams and armored vehicles for which they have no need, and then are predictably deploying them in situations where such extreme tactics are not only unwarranted, but can be counterproductive.

Given the excessive deference by prosecutors for police wrongdoings and the fact that police are being handed weapons of war to use against the public, the only surprise that should come from the events in Ferguson is that such unrest is not already more common. If things continue as they are without significant reform of policing in the US, we can expect these confrontations to continue to happen.



August 2014



Government Accuses Gay Bar of Anti-Gay Discrimination for Enforcing Government ID Requirements

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Culture & Society, Identity Politics, Liberty & Limited Government

Government lovers and practitioners of identity politics are eating their own according to Scott Shackford at Reason:

What happened last summer is that a gay man named Vito Marzano, dressed in drag from a fundraiser elsewhere, wanted to enter the Wrangler. He was denied entry. The bar claims it wasn’t because he was cross-dressing but because his image didn’t match his driver’s license. The bar had been previously cited for serving somebody underage and were now being extra cautious. For those not in the know, gay bars have a history of being targets of scrutiny by authorities looking for excuses to raid them and shut them down.

This is an important point. Arbitrary and overzealous enforcement has been a common tactic for government agents to harass certain minority populations, like gay communities. Allowing in customers who do not match their ID is a sure fire way to invite such government harassment.

Equally disturbing is the logic used by the government to determine that there was “discrimination.” The bar, it seems, dares to cater to the interests of a particular subset of the gay community known as “bears,” or burly masculine men who prefer other burly masculine men.

The state’s report notes that the bar has a dress code forbidding high-heeled shoes, wigs or appearance-altering make-up or strong perfumes. While the report states there’s nothing wrong with the dress code itself, it has determined that the bar uses this code as an excuse to exclude overly feminine women or transgender people. The Wrangler is a “bear” bar, whose target demographic is the burlier of the gay men. What’s alarming about the ruling is that it seems to act as though catering to a particular demographic is in fact evidence of a likelihood of discriminating against others:

“[T]he Respondent caters to a gay subculture known as “Bears,” which are bisexual or gay males which tend to place importance on presenting a hypermasculine image andoften shun interaction with men who exhibit effeminacy. This is evident from the pictures and statements made by employees regarding the “Bear” culture of the club and several links on the Respondent’s webpage referencing “Bear” clubs … .”

Emphasis added by me because WT-bloody-F? You know what gay people love? Having the government tell them how their various subcultures work and think on the basis of talking to a bunch of people at a bar and looking at pictures. The preference for dating or friendship with certain types of people is not the same as “shunning” other types of people. And to the extent that there are social rifts between various parts of the gay demographic, nobody should want the state government policing how they should be interacting with each other.

In a truly free and diverse society, outlets meeting niche needs would be welcomed along side those serving a more general population. But in a world of degenerative Progressivism, words such as  “diversity” and “discrimination” have been twisted to the point of almost meaning their literal opposites. Diversity now requires universal sameness – all locations must serve the same clients in the same way. Discrimination now refers to any perceived negative action against a special identity group – such as the enforcement of ID requirements – even as the same action is routinely used against non-protected classes without fuss, making anti-discrimination efforts inherently discriminatory.

Shackford ends with the most important point:

This case is a good demonstration as to why it’s so important to hold a hard line on the right to freedom of association. The Wrangler should have the right to pursue whatever customer demographic it wants for its bar. And if the community finds it significantly discriminatory, they can use social pressures to push for change (as Marzano has apparently done with a call for a boycott).

Freedom, not central government control and more power for bureaucrats, is the answer.