Is Sexual Orientation a “Choice”?

November 17, 2008

In light of the strong civil rights case which establishes that:

  1. Civil marriage is a “fundamental right” (Loving v. Virginia, 1967)
  2. Equal protection under the law requires equal availability of fundamental rights (14th Amendment to the US Constitution)
  3. Separate facilities and institutions are inherently unequal, even if they are “equal” by all measures (Brown v. Board of Education)

… the main avenue for denying that gay marriage is constitutionally protected is that the second point does not apply to homosexuals.

Certainly, “equal availability” does not equate to “equal use”. In other words, my second amendment right to organize a militia is not being violated if I choose to not own a gun. No matter what I choose, I have the right, and the Constitution prohibits the government from infringing upon that right.

So, the argument goes: marriage (heterosexual) is “available” to all people. If a homosexual wants to marry, all he needs to do is choose to live a heterosexual lifestyle, find a good Christian girl, and make himself a home!

The question is, though: is homosexuality a choice?

There are three major perspectives to consider, here, and so I will discuss them all. The first, and to my mind most important, is the scientific perspective: are homosexual traits determined pre-adulthood, or as a consequence of adult actions? The second is related: can the homosexual urges be “reversed” or reliably suppressed, without detriment to both the individual and society? The third is the most visceral: why would anyone “choose” this lifestyle in the first place?

The Scientific Concensus

For those not acquainted with how science works (and topics of homosexuality and other culture-war issues tend to bring out those who misunderstand the scientific vetting and peer review process), a quick overview:

  1. The scientific method allows for (1) initial observation, (2) hypothesis, (3) experimentation, (4) conclusion. A “hypothesis” is a statement backed by available evidence, which can be proven or disproven with some kind of test. If there is no available test for a hypothesis, then technically it is not a hypothesis.
  2. A theory is something which is well supported by the available evidence and has withstood multiple experiments and the scrutiny of peer review. The “theory of universal gravitation”, for instance, is a theory. The “theory of evolution” is another theory.
  3. Often the scientific community disagrees on particulars while agreeing to the general principles. In fact, this is the default state of science. For instance, there is very little disagreement that in the “normal universe” gravitational attraction decreases proportional to the square of distance (theory of universal gravitation); moving to the specific mechanisms there is a consensus but not universal agreement, and moving to the particulars of any given proposed mechanism there is widespread disagreement. It would be wholly inaccurate to cage the disagreement over how weak nuclear forces relate to gravitational forces as a disagreement over universal gravitation. The same could be said of the theory of evolution: disagreement over the “Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium Model” predicting likelihood of speciation, should not be seen as disagreement over the fundamental principle that species evolve over time via the mechanism of natural selection.
  4. If there is an idea out there, you’ll find at least one crackpot who agrees with it and another who disagrees. This is not the same as being backed by the “scientific community”. While the community is composed of individuals, which individuals by their very nature as well as occupation seek points of disagreement, there is often a “community view” of a particular issue or theory which the vast majority agree upon.

All that having been said, the vast preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the following is true:

  • Sexual orientation is a trait which is significantly influenced before or around the time of birth, and which is not affected by proximity to or knowledge of the “gay lifestyle”.

Some significant “twin studies” have looked into the effects of genetics on sexual orientation. For instance Bailey and Pillard (also summarized at World Policy) have compared samples from three groups of men and women, and relied on previous studies for a fourth:

  1. “Identical” twins of homosexuals
  2. “Fraternal” but same-gendered twins of homosexuals
  3. Adoptive same-gender/same-age siblings of homosexuals
  4. Natural same-gender/different-age siblings of homosexuals

In men and women both, they found that the first group was significantly but not completely predisposed to homosexuality (around 50%), the second group only slightly predisposed (around 20%) and the third group less than the second (about 10%). In females, the latter two groups were significantly less influential than in males (16% of fraternal females versus 22% of fraternal males; 6% of adoptive females versus 11% of adoptive males). Amongst “natural siblings” of homosexuals, the rate of homosexuality was found to be around 9%, approximately the same as with adoptive siblings.

General incidence of homosexuality in the population is about the same as seen in adoptive females (3-5% at the low end and 10% at the high end, depending on the specific study).

The main conclusions from twin studies are:

  1. There is not a complete determination of sexual orientation based on genetic code. This is something anti-gay sites tend to latch onto, forgetting the rest. It is absolutely true. Setting aside environmental pressures to suppress gay sexual orientation (which is significant, but IMHO not sufficient to explain the findings), we should see a vast majority of identical twins sharing orientation were a “gay gene” 100% selective.
  2. At the same time there is a significant predisposition to homosexuality born out in the genes. Homosexuality could not be explained by gross pre-birth or post-birth environmental factors, or the other two groups would have had the same highly-correlated results as the first group. Micro environmental factors (ie, which would affect one fetus or child but not the other) may exist, though.
  3. In-utero environmental effects appear to have a measurable effect on sexual orientation, as seen by comparing the second and fourth groups (both groups are natural siblings; the second group shared the womb).
  4. Finally, post-birth environment does not appear to be a significant driver of sexual orientation, as the adoptive siblings (who presumably encountered similar environments growing up) showed no appreciable change in occurrence of homosexuality than the general population. This is the most tentative of conclusions from this study, and should be seen as a hint rather than a conclusion.

Other studies on this concur with the above general findings.

Much of the scientific discussion around this area, in fact is not about if genes predispose one to a specific sexual orientation. The main discussions are: what are the secondary factors which make some predisposed individuals gay and others straight; what is the evolutionary advantage of homosexuality amongst a family group (obviously homosexuality is only rarely directly “passed on”, but the effect of having a homosexual sibling in the family might be advantageous); and can the “gay gene” be isolated in the genome (which brings forth ethical questions on unnatural selection against such a gene).

The scientific community has many questions about homosexuality, but on one thing its findings are resoundingly clear: homosexuality is NOT a choice!

Reorientation Therapy

In light of the above, the question that comes up most often is, can we “fix” homosexuals?

Many people and groups have tried. Many will say they have been successful, and pull out spot anecdotes almost as convincing as the guy who lost 150 pounds by just thinking happy thoughts and eating chocolate cake all day.

When exposed to scientific scrutiny, however, every single sexual reorientation therapy approach has proven ineffective.

Now, that is not to say that there is not ever going to be a “cure” for homosexuality. I strongly believe that the current approaches to therapy are unlikely to bear any fruit, as they tend to disregard completely all scientific understanding of sexual orientation. However, as I said, it is always possible that such a “cure” will be found.

At the same time, such hope for a “cure” can not influence policy today, and might not make sense to influence policy when it is found. Two reasons for that.

First, obviously, if there is no “cure” today, then homosexuals today are an involuntary minority. Yes, this is the same as racial minorities and disabled minorities. Constitutionally, they can and should be protected from the whims of the majority.

Second, if there were a “cure”, a major ethical question would come into play: can we as a society “force” someone to reverse their “God-created nature”, in order to enjoy fundamental rights? Were it possible (physically and economically) for a person to be “cured” of “blackness”, would it be right for us to strip all black people of rights, since they could easily obtain those rights just by way of a simple procedure?

Fundamentally, I come down on the side of this entire area of pursuit having no bearing on civil rights at all. Certainly not today, and IMHO not ever in the future, either. Men and women have fundamental civil rights from the day they are born, period.

Rational Actions

The third avenue here is really just a bit of a mind game.

Imagine for a moment that homosexuality is indeed a pure “choice”.

Who would choose that?

Well-known (to any rational chooser) attributes of the “gay lifestyle”:

  1. Denial of “natural” biological imperative. This is implicit in this mind game: homosexuality is not biological, and so the “normal” heterosexual biological imperatives continue to exist. There are very few segments of the population who successfully deny their biological imperatives (eg, Catholic priests). 3-10% of adult males would choose this?
  2. Systemic, officially sanctioned discrimination. As much as we are aiming to reverse some part of this in our lifetimes, discrimination against homosexuals has existed and been officially sanctioned for thousands of years, and likely will continue to exist for centuries to come.
  3. Systemic “blind eye” to discriminatory violence. Same as above, I’d love to see this reversed. However, even today in most of the country a gay man stands a much higher chance of being beaten to death by ignorant bigoted thugs than any straight man. And today is relatively speaking the “golden age” for homosexual tolerance!
  4. Artificially small pool of potential mates. Assuming the high end of 10% homosexuals, a male could choose from 5% of the population (10% of males) or 45% of the population (90% of women) as their potential mating pool. Sheer odds of finding someone you want to spend the rest of your life with are significantly higher with nine times as many people to choose from!

In return for all these negatives, a man choosing between homosexuality and not gets a feeling of inclusion in a “club”? Really?

Who would choose that? Keep in mind that a significant portion of the population would need to have been “choosing” just that, and in much less tolerant conditions than we know today, since before the start of recorded history.

This thought experiment always fails. There is no way we can reconcile a rational actor model with a choice to adopt a lifestyle with so many intrinsic and highly visible negative effects.

The only “rational” explanation for this would be that homosexual men are, somehow, irrational beings. However, if homosexuals are somehow generally irrational, that fact has been impossible to support in scientific studies.

So … Is There a Choice?

Scientifically, it is clear that (1) sexual orientation is most significantly determined well before adulthood and (2) attempts to change sexual orientation in adults have all failed. Rationally, it is clear that (3) were this a simple “choice” no one would choose homosexuality.

Given that, is there any argument at all in favor of the “this is a choice” / “lifestyle” / “sin” side of the debate?

As I’ve said previously, I firmly disagree with anyone who says a person should be held liable – in this life or the next – for something well outside their ability to choose. People are born poor and to bad parents and so forth, and of course it would be great if “born poor” didn’t mean “poor for life” to a statistically significant extent. However, those are failings of society, which are difficult to impossible to correct. Allowing a man or woman who was born gay to choose their soulmate, to live their life in our society with honor and dignity, and to contribute to the wealth of human progress: that is easy and cheap. And, as with all civil rights issues, the benefits will be immense beyond anything we can imagine today.

If we as a society can not stand on the side of God and our fellow man when doing so is easy, how can we hope to lay claim to righteousness when it is hard? Will we ever pull ourselves out of the dark ages of the soul, when we find it so imperative that those unlike ourselves not be allowed to enjoy life’s riches? Will the selfish miser ever find true happiness?


On Which Side of History Do You Stand?

November 14, 2008

Forgive me for the long and dry history lesson, and skip ahead to the end if you feel you must. However, we are in a historic time, and it is apropos to look back at similar times to see how the forces we consider today as “good” and those we consider today as “evil” (or, more generously, “misguided”) aligned themselves. With this historical perspective, perhaps we can then look back at ourselves, from a vantage point fifty years in the future, and give an honest answer to the question: On which side of history did we stand?

Alabama, 1883

Tony Pace and Mary Cox had fallen in love in the Antebellum South. They had not been allowed to marry because Tony was a black man and Mary a white woman. While such a marriage had been deemed valid under the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution in Alabama in 1872 (Burns v. State), the decision had been reversed in 1876 by a Democrat-ruled AL Supreme Court in Green v. State.

Green v State defended anti-miscegenation laws as necessary to protect marriage “against disturbances from without”. It deemed that the state had a vital interest in promoting and protecting white family life against “elements so heterogeneous that they must naturally cause discord, shame, disruption of family circles , and estrangement”. Indeed, later on in Hoover v. State, all interracial marriages which had been previously allowed were declared “absolutely void”. (Citations: Wiki: Pace v. Alabama and Moran: Interracial Intimacy).

Pace and Cox did not seek to invalidate the anti-miscegenation law which kept them from marrying. Their sexual relationship had been found out and they each had been sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. This was larger than non-interracial fornication sentences; the discrimination was what they went to court to fight.

They lost. In Pace v. Alabama, 1883, the US Supreme Court ruled that interracial relationships may be treated as a more egregious crime than intra-racial (ie, white with white) relationships.

In other words: interracial relationships may be discriminated against so long as each individual in the relationship is treated equally.

Louisiana, 1896

In June of 1892, with conscious intent to test the constitutionality of Louisiana’s racially-segregated railcar laws, Homer Plessy took a seat in the white car of the train, refused to move, and was arrested and jailed. Plessy appealed to the judge in his case, John Howard Ferguson, that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution were violated by the requirement for him to sit separate from the white passengers.

The case eventually came to the US Supreme Court as Plessy v. Ferguson, in 1896.

Plessy lost. In the summary, Justice Brown wrote “We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.” (Ref: Wiki Plessy v. Ferguson)

In other words: separate facilities do not treat the races with inequality. If Plessy saw it as unequal, that was his own problem.

California, 1948

Andrea Perez and Sylvester Davis met and fell in love in Los Angeles. Their families and church supported their love, and applauded their application for a marriage license.

However, Sylvester was of African descent, and Andrea of Mexican descent (which was listed as “white” and thus under the rules of anti-miscegenation). The California law at the time declared “All marriages of white persons with Negroes, Mongolians, members of the Malay race, or mulattoes are illegal and void.”

Perez brought suit against the LA County Clerk (W.G. Sharp) to force an issuance of the marriage license. Their church (the Catholic Church) was willing to marry them, and the state’s anti-miscegenation law infringed on their right to participate in the religious ceremony.

In a previous case in 1942, the California Court of Appeals, 4th District, had ruled that a woman of mixed race herself could, effectively, not marry anyone (because of her white heritage she could not marry any of the other listed races; because of her non-white heritage she could not marry any caucasians); this came up post-fact after her (white) husband’s death as an invalidation of her marriage and hence loss of inheritance (Estate of Monks, 1942). The US Supreme Court had declined to take up the case. The deck seemed stacked against Perez.

However, in a landmark ruling, the California Supreme Court ruled that marriage is a fundamental right and that laws restricting that right based on race alone violated the Equal Protection clause.

The ruling was not well received. As late as 1958, Gallup polls showed that 96% of white Americans disapproved of interracial marriage (Ref: Wiki: Antimiscegenation). While Perez and Davis’ local Church was willing to marry them, the Roman Catholic Church in general was still on record against mixed-race marriages, as were most other major religions.

Still, it started a wave of anti-miscegenation laws being overturned across the US, which wave continued at the state level throughout the 1950s and much of the 1960s.

Kansas, 1954

In Topeka, Kansas, in 1951, thirteen parents, on behalf of their twenty children, brought suit against the Topeka Board of Education calling for the Board to reverse its policy of racial segregation. This policy was built on the foundation of the principle from Plessy v. Ferguson more than half a century earlier: separate, but equal, facilities provided by the state did not violate the Equal Protection clause of the US Constitution.

Linda Brown, a third grader, needed to walk six blocks to her school bus stop, at which point she could ride to her all-black school another mile away. An all-white school, Sumner Elementary, was just seven blocks from her house. Higher-grade school were not segregated (in fact, the Topeka High School had been integrated since its inception in 1871); Kansas law permitted segregation only below the high school level.

Linda’s father, Oliver Brown, with an aim to force the Board’s hand, enrolled his daughter in their neighborhood elementary school instead of the more distant all-black school. Linda was refused enrollment, and the case (including the other nineteen children so refused) was brought in 1951.

Ten previous cases had been brought against the 1879 Kansas school segregation law, three in Topeka alone. They had all failed.

There was no reason to believe that the education of Linda Brown, other than the minor discomfort of having to be bussed a mile to a different school, was in any way inferior to that given her white neighbors. For this reason, the District Court ruled against Brown et al, citing Plessy v. Ferguson.

In 1954, the US Supreme Court ruled on the case of Brown v. Board of Education, and four other similar cases (overall, including around 200 plaintiffs versus their local authorities). Earl Warren declared that “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” in the majority opinion of the case, basing his declaration not on a measurable inequality, but rather a psychological effect of separation.

Warren cited McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, a case which had ruled against the black plaintiffs, which had nonetheless deduced “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group.” (Ref: Brown v BoE and Wiki: Brown v. BoE)

In other words, the very act of providing a separate facility for one group over another guarantees inequality, because the existence of that separate facility will be interpreted as a judgement on the separated.

The last surviving plaintif in Brown v. Bourd of Education, Zelma Henderson, died on May 20, 2008. Her son Donald, who along with his sister Vicki gained entrance to desegregated Topeka schools in 1955, continues to live in Topeka.

Virginia, 1967

By 1967, many states had repealed their traditional anti-miscegenation laws. However, Virginia had not. The 1924 “Racial Integrity Act” stood in full effect in banning interracial marriages.

Mildred Delores Jeter and Richard Perry Loving traveled to the District of Columbia to wed, and returned home to Virginia a married couple. The local police invaded their home and arrested them in their bedroom. At their trial, the judge invoked God’s plan:

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red, and He placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with His arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that He separated the races shows that He did not intend for the races to mix.”

The sentence of one year was suspended on the condition that they leave Virginia for at least 25 years.

The Lovings moved to Washington, DC, and filed a motion to vacate the judgement. Initial rulings in the Virginia Supreme Court declared that the Lovings had not been discriminated against, because both of them – the black woman and the white man – had received the same sentence, echoing Pace v Alabama, 1883.

The appeal to the US Supreme Court was accepted and heard. The Earl Warren Court ruled that the Lovings had indeed been treated unequally by the State of Virginia. He wrote:

“Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival…. To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Mildred Loving outlived her husband by several decades before passing on May 2, 2008. On the 40th anniversary of her landmark case, she spoke in favor of not only racial equality but also sexual orientation equality of marriage: “I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights.”

On Which Side Will You Stand?

Earlier this year, the California Supreme Court ruled that the California “Defense of Marriage” act sought to create a “separate but equal” facility for marriage (“Marriage” for heterosexuals, “Domestic Partnership” for gays).

No matter the practical differences of the two marriage licenses (due to the federal Defense of Marriage act, “Domestic Partnership” or “Marriage” between homosexuals would not be recognized outside of California or in any Federal jurisdictions such as income taxes or Social Security benefits). The mere presence of a separate institution for homosexual couples de facto declares them as inferior to the “normal” heterosexual couples. The CA Supreme Court ruled this as unconstitutional because the recognition of civil marriage is a “fundamental right” (declared so in Perez v. Sharp, 1948) and thus separate facilities violates the Equal Protection clause of the 14 Amendment (as established in Brown v. BoE, 1954).

In November, Californians, largely assaulted by false arguments (for instance that allowing gay couples to marry would cause homosexuality to be taught in schools and force churches to officiate in gay marriages, both of which are provably false), approved by scant majority (52%, pending final count) amending the California Constitution to forbid gay marriages in the state.

In 1948, had such an initiative process existed, I have little doubt Californians (who supported anti-miscegenation laws by more than 19 to 1) would have passed such an amendment easily. Yet, they did not. Because they did not, because they accepted progress, a vile and arguably evil practice began to come to an end. By the late 1960s major religions, including the Roman Catholic Church, had reversed their positions on miscegenation and were lobbying states to strike such laws from the books. It took eighteen and a half years before a US Supreme Court ruling would strike down anti-miscegenation laws across the country. Still, it started with the simple recognition of the fundamental right to marry which must be made available to all couples.

Now, half a century later, there are scant few who would claim in public that it is wrong or evil or destructive for a black man to marry a white woman, or for a Korean woman to marry a white man. They are, rightfully, ridiculed when they pop out their cretinous heads.

Fifty years from now, will this debate over gay marriage have been silenced by common accord? In a hundred? Perhaps it will take nothing more than a few decades, perhaps as long as another century. I am confident, however, that it will come to overwhelming consensus, as these issues tend to.

In a hundred years, your great-great grandchildren will read the journal in which you write tonight. On which side of history will they judge you as having stood?

Will they need to make excuses for you, saying “that was just what people were like back then”? Will they, instead, look at your voice as one of courage, standing for the rights of those whom you scarcely know?

California’s Proposition 8, from a Mormon

November 5, 2008

Proposition 8, aka the Hate Ammendment, has passed in California.

This is of interest to me for three major reasons:

  1. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a “Mormon”. I joined as a convert in 1995. The Church strongly advised its members to advocate for Prop 8, in multiple statements and broadcast video events, directly from the Elders of the Church. While this is not “revelation”, it is guidance and counsel, which should be heeded by all.
  2. I am also a man who understands that homosexuality is not a choice, and that in all secular legal respects homosexuals are a minority group in which membership is neither voluntary nor desirable. I can not in good conscience see the fundamental rights of a group of people be stripped for no reason other than that they were born a certain way.
  3. The “Yes on 8” campaign sought to win this campaign through lies, mischaracterizations, and fear-mongering. I can not in good conscience support such underhanded tactics, even were they in the name of a righteous cause.

Since the amendment passed, the LDS Church issued a press statement, stating in part: “After extensive debate between those of different persuasions, voters have chosen to amend the California State Constitution to state that marriage should be between a man and a woman.”

There was no extensive debate here. There was blatant demagoguery and manipulation of base emotions. I saw children – children – out on street corners marching with Yes on 8 signs. Did they know what they were marching for? Or were they being used as fill-in props to back up one of the more flagrant lies of the campaign (that kindergartners would be taught about homosexuality if 8 didn’t pass)? My own kids were given numerous “Yes on 8” screeds in their Halloween candy bags as they went around the neighborhoods. Do these people expect my kids to be voting?

For a campaign which preached itself as being “for the children”, there was a striking willingness to use and abuse children to gain visibility.

This was not an informational campaign. Millions of dollars – much of it cheerfully given by well-intentioned and obedient Saints – went into overpowering the voices of the fact checkers and playing on emotions. I am thoroughly disgusted by the level to which the Yes on 8 proponents stooped in order to stack the deck in their favor.

I have serious trouble squaring my deeply held beliefs over the right for all people to seek happiness and live contented lives, with the “testimonies” of so many of my fellow Saints saying that those rights should be taken away. Frankly, I am seriously questioning my faith in this Church and its teachings. I can see no way to square a belief in the Church and its leadership with the hatred it fostered and pain it has just unleashed upon the 18,000 forcibly annulled marriages and countless other children of God who were just told they have no reason to expect the same rights as their “straight” brethren.

I do not blame my fellow Saints. Perhaps were my testimony strong enough I too would have decided it was better to follow the advice of the Elders even though it was obviously hurting a minority group. I blame the Elders who promoted this hatred, and the culture of obedience which caused so many to heed their call. I know these are but men, as am I. I know that men make mistakes in judgement. The Church Elders have made poor judgment calls in the past in the absence of direct revelation, primarily on racial and miscegenation issues, and so this would not be unprecedented. So many of my fellow Saints claim they felt the confirmation of the Holy Spirit here, though; that is supposed to be the distinguisher of God’s word from men’s ideas. If I am right, and this was not Heavenly Father’s work, then this draws serious question to the ability of men to really distinguish the movements of the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps it is I who is wrong. Perhaps all homosexuals who do not deny their biological imperatives are meant to be excluded from secular society as well as blessings of the Church. I have considered this, and I have prayed for guidance in this, but I can not see it as God’s will. I fear that, if the Elders are right in their guidance and conclusions, then my soul must be lost, for I can not gain a testimony based on excluding large swathes of Heavenly Father’s children from the joys of this world. I will continue to pray for guidance on this, but so far none is apparent.

I hope and pray that a few years down the road we will be able to reconsider this decision and remove this hateful exclusionary passage from our Constitution. The trend in California is noticeably in the direction of tolerance over hatred, given that this measure passed with significantly less of a majority than the previous non-amendment version had eight years ago. Unfortunately countless souls will suffer in the meantime. I pray that they will be strong. We WILL overcome.


September 2, 2008

We’ve heard incessant nattering this presidential campaign about “celebrities”. “Celebrity” isn’t important, though. It is more a side effect than a core issue, and one which can come from a good trait (leadership), or from a bad trait (spotlight-seeking). So let’s shift the discussion just a half degree: what is “Leadership”, and what does it mean in the context of this election?

Giving a good speech is vital to leadership, for how else can you bring clarity to issues for the masses?

Having 38 million people tune in to watch you speak is a reflection of your leadership. It doesn’t prove leadership, but its absence would cast doubt on your leadership abilities.

Leading a country doesn’t require you to be the smartest person in every room, nor does it require you to be the most informed on every issue at every moment. Leadership requires the ability to motivate others to do that which you can not do, the curiosity and intellectual honesty to examine others’ opinions and facts and separate the wheat from the chaff, the guts to stand behind the right choice even when it is not the most popular one, and the communication skills to convince others that they should stand with you.

We in the US have been bullied into believing that the Presidency exists to stamp all policies and actions with the imprint of the values system of the man elected that office. It is not, and should not be. The Republic is a Representative Democracy: we elect representatives who in turn should reflect our will and our interests.

We do not need another egotist reigning over the laws of the land as his personal civics experiment. Instead, we need a leader: someone who can motivate us to do the great works of a great country, who can be bothered to arbitrate the issues of the day and come up with the best answer at least most of the time, who can stand firm in his convictions, and who can explain loud and clear why he is doing what he is doing so that we can know plain and clear why we should do what we need to do.

That man, in my honest opinion, is Barack Obama. But, electing him to office is not the extent of our responsibility.

In the LDS church we pledge to support and sustain our leadership and helpers. Which means, whenever called by a member to assist in their job in the Church, we pledge to do whatever necessary to help him complete it. Obviously, that doesn’t mean the fellow in charge of setting up the chairs in the overflow part of the chapel can expect me to come over to paint his house, and it also doesn’t mean that that fellow could expect me to help him set the chairs up facing the wrong direction. But, inasmuch as it is clear the member is properly executing his own calling, we are duty-bound to assist wherever necessary and practical.

In the US there is no such language in the voting booth, but perhaps there should be. Our duty can not end when the votes are tallied and a new President has been elected. He will need our help, and he will call on us for our help. We must be ready to answer.

In the end, he will need to lead us, not just in a perfunctory manner to do what we would do anyway, but in a daring and tough manner to do that which we don’t even think is possible.

That is leadership. That is why 38 million people tuned in to a 45-minute speech, more than tuned in to the Olympic opening ceremonies. That is why Obama has been featured on magazine covers and profiled in countless articles. And, most importantly: that trait, leadership, is exactly what this country has been lacking for the past eight years and what we desperately need for the next eight.

I, Palindrome, I

September 2, 2008

See the bulletproof dress hanging from the clothesline.
See the medical chart with the random zig-zag.
Now I’ll have to decide:
I, palindrome, I.

—- They Might Be Giants, I Palindrome I

Wow. How prescient are John and John? In fact, the entire Apollo 18 album could be aligned to the McCain campaign through one metaphor or another. Additional example: My Evil Twin. Anyway, that’s beside the point.

Either way you look at it, the story with Palin is the same: she may be a horrid pick for McCain, campaign-wise, but she would doubtless be horrible for the country, governance-wise.

Let’s review the issues with Palin. It’s always best to have a jumping-off point to provide structure, so I’ll take Michael Medved’s Palin rationale as my jumping-off point.

It begins to close the energy gap. The biggest problem for the GOP this year is that Obama devotees were vastly more energized than McCain supporters. Even though polling looked close, the other side was more excited about their candidate. The Palin pick will help Republicans to catch up, exciting the party’s base – particularly religious conservatives.

The first point potentially in favor of Palin is that she’s not an old, lethargic, forgetful man. That is certainly in her favor during the campaign season. Verdict: Good choice for the campaign and would be good for governance if she were trusted with the “car keys”, but only in comparison to any other old rich white guy. Relative to Obama, she’s just closing a gap, not moving the campaign forcibly ahead.

It underscores the best issues for McCain – drilling for oil and cutting government waste. Palin’s obviously an expert on energy production (taxpayers in her state get yearly government checks because of it) at the same time she’s won credibility taking on big oil companies. She’s also been tight-fisted (and veto prepared) when it comes to cutting spending.

This is a compound one, and I disagree pretty completely with Medved here. I don’t see how she is “obviously an expert on energy production” any more than the governor of, say, Texas is “obviously an expret on Longhorn ranching”. She may or may not be, but what we’ve seen so far (and the painfully uncomfortable recorded interviews on the subject) definitely don’t make that “obvious”.

Cutting spending? Every report I’ve seen has had her focus on increasing revenues to the state of Alaska (by oil co windfall taxes, a position McCain seemed reticent to support last I’d heard), and rather ambivalent to the other side of the state budget and finances.

Verdict on Point 2: The impression may be she knows what she is talking about (if and only if you equate “Alaska oil production” to “energy production”) in the campaign, but the weighting of an Alaska oil girl on the ticket will have just as much good governance effects on energy policy as the weighting of a Texas oil guy and a Wyoming multi-national-corporation guy on the previous ticket. Which is: no good energy policy will come when the first second and third thoughts are “how do we get enough oil out of Alaska to replace everything drilled in Saudi Arabia”.

She emphasizes McCain’s credibility as a reformer. She’s clearly identified with the reform wing of the notoriously corrupt Alaska Republican Party. McCain owned the title “reformer” in 2000 – with his talk of cleaning up lobbyist influence and special interests in Washington. No he should recapture the designation and make the most powerful and important point of this election cycle: you can’t clean up government by expanding it. The only way to fight government corruption is to shrink government, not grow it. McCain and Palina re the right team to go to Washington to drain the swamp and give back the people’s money – not to expand the bureaucracy with dozens of ambitious new federal programs.

Hmm. First, while she may be identified with the “reform wing of the notoriously corrupt Alaska Republican Party” that’s about as much a compliment on being attached to the reform wing of the Politburo. We wouldn’t allow Gorbachev as our VP (Constitutional issues aside). While being a “Reformer” is great, it doesn’t translate to the national stage well. For instance, as a “reformer” in Alaska she openly and loudly supported Ted Steven’s “notoriously corrupt” administration and policies. She attached herself to Jack Abramov’s own Washington lobbyist to further Alaska issues on Capital Hill. She campaigned on support for the “Bridge to Nowhere” long before she canceled the project, and only canceled the project on the terms of getting the Federal funds which would have been going into that bridge to do other local pork projects. That’s not reform we can believe in, as someone might say.

Second, the idea of her shrinking government is a new one. I haven’t come across evidence of this personally, so I’ll give Medved the benefit of the doubt here.

Verdict on Point 3: The illusion of “reform” gives the campaign something to talk about, but will open the door to recent-associations attacks. I think it is a loser of a campaign issue. And governance-wise, there’s no evidence she’d be in favor of reform on a national level at all.

Palin allows Republicans to compete on the novelty front. One of Barack’s biggest advantages has been the widespread sense of wonderment he inspires: “I can’t believe we can really elect a black guy on a national ticket!” Now McCainiacs can claim a miracle of our own, as we pinch our delirious selves: “I can’t believe we can really elect a woman on a national ticket – and a conservative woman at that!”

Okay, I’ll grant novelty, although I do have to note that the “woman as VP nominee” is not exactly a first. On the other hand, you could also put a one-armed midget into the race to get novelty; that doesn’t mean she’ll get votes. It obviously doesn’t mean she’ll govern well. Verdict on Point 4: Possible campaign advantage, no governance effect.

The choice should help to reassure grumblers on the right who have insisted that McCain isn’t a “real conservative.” For these folks, the Arizona Senator’s lifetime rating of 82.3% from the American Conservative Union was never enough (Obama’s number is 8%, and Biden’s is 13%). Along with his pro-life, pro-gun, never-supported-a-tax increase voting record, McCain now shows that in the most important decision of his political career he reaches to the right, not to the center. Sure, he offered praise for his friends Lieberman and Ridge (talk is free, after all) but when it counted to define his legacy, to launch his administration, he selected one of the nation’s most conservative governors – and a stalwart leader on the human life issue. More than anything else, this shows McCain’s true political identity, and should reinforce his promise to appoint Justices like Alito and Roberts, Scalia and Thomas.

Not going into McCains late-blooming ultra-conservative bona-fides here, but obviously Palin’s Creationist hardliner idealogy sits well with the “real conservative” base. And, yes, it is 100% guaranteed that the McCain/Palin duo will nominate three new Supreme Court justices (replacing the most liberal three on the bench currently) who will reverse the Roe v Wade decision, making abortions illegal, unsafe, but still not rare.

Verdict on Point 5: This is a major win for conservatives on both the campaign trail and in governance. On the other hand, no matter who McCain’s VP pick was, he’d be nominating ultra-conservatives to the SC bench; the only difference is that with Palin they get a life insurance policy on McCain, which is worth its weight in gold. On the other hand, if you live in the more reality-based world which has been around for a few billion years longer than the Creationists’ 7000-year-old world, this is a major governance issue. If the point is highlighted throughout the campaign (as opposed to the dog-whistle telegraphing Bush/Rove are so adept at) then it will be a major negative for the campaign outside the ultra-conservative 27%.

Yes, this undermines McCain’s future use of the experience issue, but that’s almost certainly a good thing, too.

Okay, stop right there. The issue isn’t that McCain can’t keep using the “experience card”. The issue is that he is a hypocrite for saying experience is so important and then annointing an inexperienced neophyte to replace him. This is not a game-changer for the rest of the campaign so much as it invalidates everything he has said and banked on to date.

Verdict on Point 6: This is a major campaign failure. It is also a major governance failure: if McCain is – heaven forbid – incapacitated or dies in office, Palin takes the reigns of the country long before she is ready. If he lasts through the four years, he is unlikely to run for re-election (I’m betting), and Palin takes the stage as the instant frontrunner for office. Will she be qualified then, after four years as VP? It all depends on how well McCain has done at giving her responsibilities throughout his term, of course. But, in a parallel world where a seasoned VP had been sitting there for four years, that hypothetical VP would have been completely ready to take the GOP’s reigns as the presumptive nominee in 2012. The problem here is opportunity cost: to put Palin in a place where she might possibly be halfway ready to take the reigns in 2012, you neglect to put someone else there who could absolutely be ready for the role. So, verdict on governance is that this is a failing issue there as well.

The televised Vice Presidential Debate in October suddenly becomes an important media event, and offers more risks for Joe Biden than Sarah Palin. If the GOP had nominated a “boring old white guy” (Romney, Lieberman, Ridge, or even Pawlenty—who’s not old) few viewers would have tuned in. The novelty of a young, attractive female taking on grizzled Joe Biden will give this debate special juice. The expectations for Palin are so low she should have no difficulty (if well prepared) in exceeding them. Moreover, Biden can’t fire back contemptuously the way Lloyd Bentsen did against Dan Quayle because Palin is a sympathetic female. Republican Rick Lazio lost the Senatorial election against Hillary when he tried to be too tough and confrontational in the debate. Palin, on the other hand, can surprise the world by being as aggressive as possible against Biden — after all, her nickname on her state championship high school basketball team (she was point guard) was “Sarah Barracuda.”

This is potentially true. I’d like to think the American public is more adult than this, but they did elect Bush twice.

Verdict on Point 7: Major campaign plus, no effect on governance (unless you believe that the oil lobbyists behind closed doors will likewise be kowtowed by their innate sense of chivalry).

Okay, that missed the major problems with Palin, though:

Trooper-gate. And her history of promptly firing anyone who supported her opposition (meaning, people in historically non-political positions). Do we need or want another executive in the office who is willing to abuse his/her power to wage their personal wars?

Alaskan Secession. Palin’s husband had long been a member of the Alaska Independence Party, which seeks to pull Alaska out of the US, and which openly campaigns to place supporters in positions of power in the Federal government. He changed to “undeclared” in 2002 when she first ran on a Republican ticket. While her husband’s views are not necessarily her own, and he may have registered in the AIP as a lark to begin with, this is something which will need more addressing than it has gotten (which is a simple denial that she was ever registered AIP).

Church Over State. Palin has a history of pushing for heavy church involvement in the running of the state, from banning books with non-Christian themes to pushing for “equal time” to Creationism relative to science. I think the country has had enough of that BS.

Poor Judgement. Palin’s legendary 12-hour plane ride while in labor with a Downs’ Syndrome child is telling. Perhaps her motivations there lie in her Alaska Uber Alles secessionist leanings (wanting her son to be a “native” of Alaska), or perhaps for family reasons (so that everyone could witness the birth). The risks she took, though, were disproportionate. The child had a large chance of needing serious care upon delivery, care which would not have been available on the flight, and which would not have been available in her small-town hospital (she flew another four hours away from the Juneau hospital with a top-notch neonatal facility). She didn’t alert any of the flight attendants that she was in labor (they didn’t even realize she was pregnant!) To me, it charitably speaks to poor judgement, or, uncharitably, to willful endangerment of her unborn child. Granted, all turned out well in this case, but nine times out of ten driving home drunk doesn’t lead to an accident either. It’s still a sign of dangerously inadequate judgement.

Overall, I think she is a minor positive balance on a flailing ticket. From a governance perspective, however, I think she would be an absolute disaster for the country.