Friday, March 23, 2012

Is the First Amendment Outdated?

by Libby Sternberg

It’s easy to forget, in this freewheeling, anything-goes, tolerance-minded society of ours, that it wasn’t so long ago that Catholics were derided, their beliefs publicly ridiculed, and their leaders mocked.

Oh, wait, that was just yesterday.

Or so it seemed when the contraception debate began. That is, when advocates for the HHS mandate (saying all employers must include free contraception coverage in their insurance plans regardless of their church teachings on the matter) turned the tables on free-conscience supporters by making the debate about bishops and their fellow-traveling Republican men who want to control women’s health. You remember the infamous photo, correct? Yes, this one:

Sorry, wrong picture. That’s a Thomas Nast cartoon from the 1800s suggesting bishops wanted to control American public schools (look closely—the alligators coming to attack the poor schoolchildren are wearing bishops’ miters). Those bishops. Always trying to control something or other.

The photo to which I’m referring, though, went so viral that a short description will probably suffice: about a half dozen men, most in clerical garb, seated glumly at a congressional hearing table, microphones and notes at the ready.

They were there to testify about religious rights, not contraception, but that didn’t matter to the folks who passed the photo around as one more example of the miter-wearing Y chromosome crowd trying to crush women under their heels.

In the interest of full disclosure, I do not agree with the Catholic Church’s position on many things, including contraception. But, like Kevin Seamus Hasson, the head of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, I believe the Church has the “right to be wrong.”

Hasson has penned a book with that title on first amendment issues. For Christmas one year, I gave each of my children a copy. It’s a fast read, chock full of valuable history and information.

Hasson’s book title is apt. It’s what the first amendment, with its protections of religious liberty, is really about: the right to a free conscience that makes moral judgments, even if sometimes those judgments are wrong and unpopular. That’s at the nub of the First Amendment, making it a relevant principle to atheists and believers alike—it protects individuals’ right to say, essentially, this is morally repugnant and I will not just “follow orders” and do it.

As I witnessed the contraception argument debated on Facebook and elsewhere, I’ve been amazed at the number of people, however, who seem to think free conscience decisions should be popular in order to be truly valid. Many people seemed to think that the unpopularity of the Church’s contraception stance (as evidenced by the lack of large Catholic families) demonstrates that the Church is wrong on the issue, and because they are wrong, the Church must obey the more popular “right” stance on birth control coverage.

Arguing against this view usually elicited a litany of other Church wrongs, most notably the sex abuse scandals, Church views on sexuality in general, the celibate priesthood, and… Rick Santorum…as if these things confirmed the Church was wrong, too, on contraception.

The Church, of course, is not a democracy, and those who’d like to make it so should focus their efforts on trying to change it in the private sphere. (I suggest a nail, hammer, and some theses—perhaps 95.) Using the government to coerce the Church to change might get you what you want in the short-term but will likely lead to things you don’t want in the long-term, the dilution of free conscience rights overall.

The debate over the Church’s “wrongness,” however, reminded me that everything old is new again. It’s not really a joke that I included the Thomas Nast cartoon above. It represented a commonplace view during its time, that Catholics were so wrong in their views that they needed to be legislated virtually out of existence. They had a different approach to worship (a Mass in Latin—quelle horreur!), celibate leadership (for a peek at views on this, take a look at Rev. Justin D. Fulton’s 1880s masterpiece Why Priests Should Wed, a treasure trove of anti-Catholic propaganda in the guise of “advice” on Catholic principles), a different Bible (the Douay and not the King James) and a foreign Pope, among other things. Anti-Catholic views were as acceptable back then as, say, bashing Mormons is today.

As a long-time school choice and voucher advocate, I’m aware of this history and how it played a distasteful part in a significant public institution in America—the creation of public schools, which were originally designed to blanche threatening “papist” views from new immigrant children’s minds. (That history still touches the voucher debate in the courts, by the way, in a tangential way. A regular legal opponent of school vouchers is the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. At their formation in the 1940s in the wake of court rulings that benefited Catholic institutions, they were known as Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State, only shortening their name in 1971.)

Here we are, more than a century after the anti-Catholic campaigns of yesteryear, though, and we’re still seeing the same old misunderstandings, and, in a way, the same old arguments. The Church is wrong, the Church is different, and—instead of “the Church is the enemy of America”—the Church is the enemy of women; therefore the State must make the Church into something else by legislating a violation of its principles.

In an increasingly secular society, people forget why it’s important to let the Church be wrong. Freedom of conscience is such a powerful human drive that it leads men to choose death over recanting their beliefs. Early Christians, after all, went to the arena rather than burn incense to pagan gods because they believed they had found a higher truth. Even atheists believe in seeking truth, which is at the foundation of a free conscience.

Hasson writes in his book, “A government that seeks to minimize the consciences of its citizens may well find itself, in a generation or two, in a predicament far worse than having too many principled people claiming too many points of conscience. It may find itself with too few principled people to sustain a society.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is fighting the HHS contraception mandate in court, is promoting rallies on Friday, March 23 for those interested in supporting rights of conscience. Information is here.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her book website is here. She also occasionally blogs at Hot Air.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Yes, There Is a War on Women

by Libby Sternberg

Even though it's been weeks since conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh called a reproductive rights activist a "slut" and then apologized, the "war on women" has not subsided.

Good. It's high time that women on the right side of the political aisle joined the battle. And because conservative women's long-simmering outrage was ignited by the left's double standard in the Rush kerfuffle, liberals have been in the uncomfortable position of playing defense. 

Sure, they've turned to an even more aggressive offensive stance (more on that in a bit), but at the outset, they were whipsawed by the reaction of conservative women who, after suffering through years of grotesque, highly misogynistic comments from liberal celebrity pundits, finally had the opportunity to present a litany of these offensive louts' language for all to see, saying, "Yeah, these filth-spewing commentators deserve the world's opprobrium--we're so glad you agree with us at last." Ahem.

(A quick aside: Politics ain't beanbag, and when I, and other women I know, speak of "offensive language," we're not talking about strong metaphors. We're talking about language that diminishes women to their sexual natures alone, language that is a variation on either "forget her ideas, she's one hot fox," or, "she's no more than a c***, so why take her seriously?")

The reaction to conservative women's pushback during L'Affaire Limbaugh has been amusing, to say the least. The standard liberal meme has been resurrected: liberal commentators, regardless of their offenses, aren't equal to Rush because of his huge audience and, oh, yeah, he is the titular head of the Republican Party anyway, you know. (Tell that to the various GOP presidential candidates who won the party's nomination despite harsh criticism from Rush.)

The audience measurement argument puts liberals in the embarrassing position of showcasing "their guys'" low  audience numbers, though. Beyond what Nielsen statistics say about the appeal of liberal ideas on the airwaves, however, the question then becomes: exactly where is the cutoff that gives a commentator a pass in the use of offensive language? Is it 900,001 (Keith Olbermann could draw close to 900,000, after all.) How about 1,000,001? (Bill Maher can draw a million.) Even if liberal fellows don't understand the absurdity of that argument, most women, who've ever walked past a construction site to catcalls and whistles, do.

So, now that the hypocrisy has been exposed in the Rush brouhaha, the left has loaded other missiles in their Outrage Artillery to keep the "War on Women" battle alive to their benefit. They've been firing off shots about how conservative men want to control women's bodies (abortion, contraception, etc.). They are dragging out a list of state bills sponsored by conservatives that seek to either limit access to contraception or force women to undergo "invasive" testing before having abortions.

As to the contraception bills, from my knowledge these are a reaction to the HHS mandate dictating that all health plans must cover contraception and abortifacients, regardless whether the coverage violates the religious beliefs of the employers. So they are attempts, perhaps clumsy and (pardon the pun) ill-conceived, to protect First Amendment rights of free conscience. If the White House made a real accommodation with religious entities concerning these mandates, the reactionary bills would probably disappear in a snap. (And, no, the WH has made no accommodation--the same mandate language HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius advanced prior to announcing accommodations is still in the law.)

On to the ultrasound bills--there's been one in Virginia, but they're popping up elsewhere--proposed laws to force women seeking abortions to have ultrasounds first. I'm not keen on legislating medical practice, but I am sympathetic to the pro-life point of view, even if I don't entirely share it.

Pro-life advocates believe that abortion is murder. And just as activists such as George Clooney can't stand idly by while watching people be massacred in Africa, pro-life champions believe they, too, must do everything in their power to stop what they see as the slaughter of innocents.

I admire George Clooney, even without agreeing with him on all his stances, and would never disparage his well-intentioned efforts. Similarly, I admire pro-life activists, even if I don't agree with all their approaches. Can most liberals say the same?

In fact, the left's barrage of attacks on ultrasound bills has incensed at least one pro-choice supporter, who argues, quite persuasively, that using inflammatory language (such as "rape") to describe pre-abortion ultrasounds is harmful to women. Since the vast majority of abortion providers do these ultrasounds anyway prior to abortions, liberals are unnecessarily alarming women about their invasiveness and diminishing their value.

But that's the real problem with this whole "war on women" the left is using to try to score points against the right. It ignores the reality of women's opinions and lives just to trounce political opponents. It hides behind the skirts of women, in other words, to fire shots at adversaries, seeking to damage them in women's eyes.

The reality is that women are not of one mind on reproductive issues. Gallup polls show women fairly evenly divided on abortion, in fact, with 48 percent identifying themselves as "pro-life" and large majorities supporting some restrictions on abortions that liberals traditionally fight tooth and nail-- things like parental consent laws for abortions for minor girls, for example. Ironically, I'm sure mothers who hold these beliefs would look at liberal opposition as something of a "war" on them.

But you rarely hear of these divided opinions when the High Dudgeon Industry has fired its first shots. In my cynical view, that's because those fueling the battle aren't really all that interested in listening to what women have to say after all...unless it can be used to defeat political opponents.

So, David Axelrod can blithely criticize Rush Limbaugh in one breath, while stammering sophistry about why Bill Maher's one-million-dollar donation to  the president's SuperPac is okay because....well, because it's just too darn silly to even repeat here.

Don't be fooled, sisters. There might be a "war on women" out there, but it's coming as much from the left who want to silence the half of American women who don't agree with liberals on abortion policy. According to their "rules of engagement," these women--pro-lifers or their admirers-- deserve to be called any name in the misogynist's lexicon.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist and a past member of the Vermont Commission on Women.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Middle Class, Beware

by Joseph Sternberg

Federal expenditures have increased during President Obama's administration from a previous level of about 20% up to 25% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This is an increase of $780 billion dollars a year. How is such an increase going to be paid for? 

Recently, President Obama submitted a budget for 2013 that calls for an increase of government expenditures, not a reduction, with a projected deficit of close to a trillion dollars. It is clear beyond any doubt that Obama is opposed to solving the debt problem by reducing expenditures. So what is the alternative?

Obama seeks to create the belief that if the rich paid their "fair share," there wouldn't be a deficit problem.There is a case to be made that the wealthy are not paying their "fair share." Over a long period of time, with both Republican and Democratic political support, the tax rate schedule has been progressive, calling for the wealthy to pay a larger percentage of their income in income taxes than less wealthy taxpayers. But because of all sorts of provisions and loopholes that have been written into the tax code, tax payments by the wealthy fall well below what is called for by the tax rate schedule. Obama proposes to fix this by imposing a millionaires tax of 30% so that wealthy people pay their "fair share." It is estimated that this would bring in an additional $40 billion dollars a year in revenue. That still leaves $740 billion in increased expenditures.

Obama says his objective is to protect the middle class from an increase in taxes while addressing the deficit problem. He has proposed to decrease the deficit by allowing the Bush tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 to expire, claiming that these tax cuts were tax cuts for the wealthy and violated the "fair share" principle. The IRS tax data shows that this claim is false. According to the IRS tax data for 2000 and 2004, the income taxes paid on the total AGI  (Adjusted Gross Income) for all taxpayers fell from 15.26% in 2000 to 12.10% in 2004, a reduction of 21%. At the same time, the percentage of taxes paid on AGI by the top 1% of taxpayers only fell by 15%. So if the Bush tax laws are allowed to expire, the middle class will have their taxes raised more than the top 1% and the bulk of the increase in taxes will be paid by the middle class.

Since the total amount collected in federal income taxes in 2010 was approximately $900 billion dollars, an increase of 21% by canceling the Bush tax cuts would add an estimated $188 billion to federal revenue. Adding together $40 billion and $188 billion still leaves $552 billion in expenditures not covered by tax revenue. For political reasons (not to mention economic reasons) Obama isn't seeking an across the board increase in income tax rates to cover this deficit.

Well there is always a Value Added Tax (VAT)  to be considered. In the European Union the VAT tax produces about 25% of the total tax revenue. Overwhelmingly, the middle class pays for this expenditure tax since the middle class spends a much higher fraction of its income for consumption than the upper 1%. Federal revenue in 2010 was 2.16 trillion dollars. A VAT tax designed to add revenue equal to 25% of this amount would  provide $540 billion dollars covering the remaining deficit of $552 billion.

So the inevitable conclusion is that the increase in expenditures from 20% of GDP to 25% of GDP by Obama  would have to be mostly paid for by the middle class. Trying to conceal this by class warfare in unconscionable.

Joseph Sternberg
Retired Professor of Physics

Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA

Thursday, March 8, 2012

International Women's Day:
Pro-Women or Poseurs?

by Libby Sternberg

How serendipitous--a week after conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh called reproductive rights activist Sandra Fluke a "slut" for her advocacy for free contraception, we have arrived at... International Women's Day. 

I'm sure all those who steamed with outrage over Rush's offensive remarks will now be hurrying to champion other women's issues--say, their right to drive or hold office in places like Saudi Arabia; oh, or maybe their right not to be stoned for adultery in Iran; or, perhaps, in a desire to "act locally" with their support of women, condemning misogynist remarks from all high-profile individuals whenever they occur.

My guess, however, is that the Outrage Herd has moved on. They achieved their goal with Rush. No, not his apology. Rather, his loss of advertisers.

Because that was really the point, wasn't it? Not so much to protect a woman's right to speak out but to put the kibosh on Rush speaking out on anything.

Yes, that's a cynical view, but it's grounded in history. As Democrat Kirsten Powers has pointed out so well, liberal commentators such as Bill Maher, Ed Schultz, and Keith Olbermann have spewed far worse, far more ugly remarks about conservative women to virtually no reaction from the current "pro-women" crowd.

Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin has a stomach-churning column on what she has been called over the years by notables and quotables, everything from the relatively mild "Manila whore" to the utterly base comment of a Rolling Stone writer that he likes to imagine her with male testicles in her mouth every time he reads her columns. (I apologize--he used far more colorful language, but there's no polite way of describing his comment.)

And, although this won't be popular with the Sarah Palin-hating crowd, the former Alaskan Governor was the victim of the biggest double standard of them all--her utterances on public policy were mocked relentlessly while her opponent in the 2008 campaign, now Vice President Joe Biden, made gaffe after public gaffe and received the standard "good old boy" reaction: That's just good ole Joe; he's one of us, you know.

Yet the response to these calumnies against women from the Outrage Herd: crickets.

Actually, the reaction is far worse, in my opinion. It's not just silence, it's both implicit and explicit endorsement. After all, if folks like David Axelrod, the president's senior campaign adviser, feel free to condemn Rush Limbaugh in one breath and book an appearance on Bill Maher's show in the next, what does that tell us about his true views on women? Isn't he saying, with a cynical wink, "Uh, I'm with you, ladies, except, you know, when a  misogynist benefits me and my pal here. And anyway, that's just good ole Bill; he's one of us, you know."

Okay, so he's a guy. He doesn't get it. What about women leaders, feminists? Can they muster even a scintilla of anger at these problems on the left? Guess not.

I grew up in an era when, during a grade school debate, the boys in the class argued a woman wasn't qualified to be president. I grew up in a time when some women hid the fact that they could type from their bosses, knowing if they revealed they had that skill, they'd be doing the grunt work in the office and nothing more. I came into adulthood when you could bet money on the fact that a woman was being paid less than a man for the same job. And I worked in some situations where a woman's voice in a strategy meeting wasn't heard until a man repeated what she said.

So, while I'm not a placard-waving feminist--there are many issues on which I disagree with my sisters--I'm keenly aware of women's ongoing struggles.

But I'm not fooled by the current uproar over Rush's remark about Sandra Fluke. If he had said the same thing about a conservative, today's new pro-women warriors would be hiding in the tall grass, chirping softly away.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist. When she lived in Vermont, she served on the Vermont Commission on Women.

And more time too, please!

by Leslie S. Lebl

Let me offer a dissenting view from the conventional wisdom.

I've liked the fact that the Republican party has no clear front-runner in the Presidential race. Yes, I know that no one else agrees with me, but since this blog is a wonderful place for lone voices, let me explain what I mean.

I saw the end of Newt Gingrich's victory speech Tuesday night, after the Georgia primary; he was smart, analytical, funny -- and as long as there's no chance he'll actually win the nomination, he's a great addition to the field. His intellect sets a standard for the others and pushes them to perform better. It's a shame his character is so unsteady, but he does make an important contribution... especially when he's bashing the media for avoiding the real issues in this campaign year.

It's been painful to watch Rick Santorum lose his way in social issues, but there's a segment of the Republican electorate that thinks these issues are important, so by all means, let's talk about them. Better to air them than not, although I think the final consensus will form around the candidate most likely to win, not the most conservative one.

Both of them push Mitt Romney, who needs a push. Let's hope the pressure gets him out of his shell, talking about issues that matter to voters. And since he sames to take his sweet time to open up, let's be glad there's no hurry.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

More, Please -- Information, That Is

by Leslie S. Lebl

Okay, I'm in fantasy-land - but it is an election year, and I'm being bombarded by all kinds of promises and assertions. So I'm dreaming of two things.

The first would be a list, prepared by the Obama administration, a neutral non-partisan think-tank, or in fact just about anybody, of those green energy 'investments' subsidized by the U.S. government that have been successful.

My criteria for success aren't too rigorous: the company in question (1) should not have since gone bankrupt; (2) should not have laid off a large percentage of its employees; (3) should not have made a major investment abroad after receiving the subsidy. And, to make my fantasy complete, I'd like to see the percentage of total expenditures on green technologies that went to these successful companies.

Skeptics, please note I'm not even asking that the companies on the list show substantial sales or a profit. Nor am I restricting the data to certain years; green technologies have been subsidized by Republican as well as Democratic administrations.
The second thing I'd like is data showing whether high European gas prices have stimulated the development of significant alternative energy sources there. Such data would, of course, take into account the extensive state subsidies of various European countries.

I realize it's completely unrealistic to expect to conduct a public debate on alternative energy based on data, but I can dream, can't I?

A retired Foreign Service Officer, Leslie S. Lebl is a writer, consultant and lecturer. In the Foreign Service, Ms. Lebl served as Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels. Prior to that, she was Political Advisor to the Commander of Stabilization Forces (SFOR) in Bosnia-Herzegovina, first in the American sector in Tuzla and then at SFOR headquarters in Sarajevo. Other assignments included Russia, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York, Bolivia, Germany and Poland, as well as a year as diplomat-in-residence at Yale University. She speaks French, German, Russian, Polish and Spanish. She is currently at work on a book about radical Islam and the European Union.