Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Is “Right to Life” an Ethical Position or a Political Tool?

I have enormous respect for those who oppose abortion because they truly accept that the sanctity of life overrides all other arguments. Very few people actually live up to this standard. In my experience, most people who use the sanctity of life as a rationale to oppose abortion readily abandon it when it is politically expedient to do so.

Those who truly embrace the sanctity of life as the overarching argument oppose the death penalty in all cases. Yet most Right to Lifers are able to rationalize that their definition of justice or their ideas about deterrence take precedence over the sanctity of life. Or they turn logic upside down by claiming executions confirm the sanctity of life! We know innocent people have been executed, that it is applied unevenly to different races, and there is no clear, uncontested evidence that the ritual killing is a more effective deterrent than less drastic measures. Some people believe the Right to Life does not apply to some types of people convicted of some crimes.

When the US invaded Iraq, a sovereign country that was not an immanent threat to the US, it used military techniques that were bound to kill innocent civilians. Estimates are that between 100,000 and 300,000 innocent civilians have died as a result of this US war of choice. President Bush, who is a Right to Lifer when it is convenient, refused to count, or even acknowledge, the civilian casualties. Some people believe the sanctity of life does not apply to civilians in countries whose government might remotely be a threat to the US.

Although there have been hundreds of deaths in US mining disasters over the past 30 years, few occurred in unionized mines, because unions put the safety of miners first and will walk off the job if safety rules are not followed. Some mine owners spare no effort to keep unions out of their mines and give generously to politicians who work to weaken safety regulations and inspections, leading to hundreds of needless deaths. Many Right to Lifers support the mine owners’ efforts to avoid safety regulations. Some people believe the sanctity of life is less important than profits.

Anti-abortionists have passed dozens of laws to try to reduce abortions. All these laws are aimed at controlling or humiliating pregnant women. None of them empower women to prevent pregnancies. Laws require women to view anti-abortion literature, to undergo (and watch) invasive procedures for viewing the fetus, to have their sexual history posted on line, and to inform their parents if they are under 18. These laws, at best, produce only a short term reduction in the number of abortions. Interestingly, there is virtually no emphasis on making fathers responsible for supporting their children or posting their sexual history on line.

Study after study after study has shown that comprehensive sex education reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies, abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases (some of which are deadly). Sincere Right to Lifers will support mandatory

Comprehensive sex education classes as a requirement for high school graduation,
Condom dispensing machines in all high schools and youth centers, and
Public service ads promoting responsible sexual behavior on prime time TV.

These measures would prevent far more abortions than all those coercive measures combined. Yet some argue that parents have the right to control what their children are exposed to, or what they are taught about sex, and so they object to mandatory sex education. Others argue against these programs because teenagers engage in sex earlier after such programs (about 6 months earlier on average). Some people believe that the right of parents to control their children is more important than saving lives and preventing abortions.

The vaccines against the human papillomavirus (HPV) help prevent cancers associated with HPV infection and therefore save lives. To be effective it must be given before exposure to HPV, which essentially means before the onset of sexual activity. Some argue against giving this vaccine to their children because it may give the appearance of encouraging sexual activity or promiscuity. Some people believe the sanctity of life does not apply to women whose sexual life offends them.

If you condone ritual killings because they might deter crime, or you condone the slaughter of thousands of innocent people because of a remote threat to the US, or you believe the rights of parents to control their children’s education is more important than preventing pregnancy, death, or disease, or you would deny the HPV vaccine to girls because you think it is immoral, then you have no right telling a woman she can not decide to have an abortion. You are a hypocrite who ignores the sanctity of life when it is inconvenient to your politics. And you have no decency if you humiliate women for making choices you disagree with.

The sanctity of life argument fails completely in those cases where the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. Even when medical science knows that both mother and fetus will die without an abortion, or where treating the mother will kill the fetus, some people insist that it is unethical to sacrifice the child to save the mother. Many reasonable people accept that there is a strong ethical argument for choosing the course that preserves the most lives.

There are those who insist that if people obeyed their particular religion’s sexual edicts (no sex outside marriage, only for procreation, or what ever), then there would be no STDs or abortions. While technically true, this is a deeply flawed argument because it denies human nature. Throughout human history societies have had sexual taboos, and in every society those taboos are frequently and repeatedly violated. Sex is a powerful, innate biological drive. As the Victorians and Shiites proved, suppression only leads to obsession. Even in societies that proscribe the death penalty for behavior deemed deviant, people still transcend the rules. No one has a right to deny opportunities to women because of their own religious sexual beliefs.

An abortion is a terrible ordeal and an extremely difficult choice for a woman to make. As a society we are hypocrites if we do not preserve the right of women to make that choice, but we must also do everything we can to empower women to avoid the necessity of that choice. Failure to do so is a failure to honor the sanctity of life.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

How Republicans Became Politically Correct Supporters of Islamic Supremacy

The doomsayers are right: The End Is Near! How else can we explain Rush Limbaugh becoming a proponent of Political Correctness and the Republicans, en masse, allying with Islamic Supremacists?

The essence of Political Correctness (PC) is the concept that some speech is so offensive to certain self-absorbed individuals that it must be suppressed. The self-proclaimed right to not be offended supersedes the constitutional guarantee of free speech. I, along with Rush and many people on the political Right, have long ridiculed this concept. For example, when students in Gilroy, CA wore American flags and made provocative comments during Cinco de Mayo celebrations, many of us defended their actions.

But many people defend PC when it comes to religious beliefs and feelings. Even those who ridicule PC when it is invoked by Liberals have been critical of actions that raise religious ire(from Bill O'Reilly, to Gary Nodler, to British Midland Airline). In most European nations it is a crime to promote Holocaust denialism. Many countries have passed or reaffirmed anti-blasphemy laws. Where were the protests, among the Right, when people were jailed for publishing articles claiming the Holocaust was a hoax? Who complained when publishers backed out of book deals because some Muslims said they’d be offended by the book? Why wasn’t News Corp secretly underwriting the costs for protests against Ireland’s new blasphemy law?

Since 1999 Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the Islamic Council have been pushing the UN to adopt an anti-blasphemy law. Their proposed resolution would outlaw any speech or action deemed offensive to Islam. When other religions complained, it was broadened to include offense to other religions as well, but its primary objective is to make any criticism of Islam illegal. The US has opposed this resolution, as must all freedom loving people.

For perspective, here are some of the things Muslims in the West find offensive:
• Walking dogs in front of a mosque
• Public swimming pools not segregated by sex
• Eating in front of Muslims during their Ramadan fast
• Publishing books tracing the historic evolution of the Koran

On September 11, 2001 a group of political zealots carried out terrorist actions against the US to further their political goals. They were Muslims who believed their political agenda was consistent with their religious beliefs, but their action was a political action against the perceived mistreatment of Muslims and US/Israeli policies. It a great national shame that our violent, knee jerk response to these events has resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims, has played into the hands of our enemies, and has inspired more Jihadists than al-Qaeda ever could.

Now our Republican zealots are embracing Political Correctness by objecting to a planned Muslim Community Center in Manhattan because its location, 6 blocks from the former World trade towers and 2 blocks from the edge of “Ground Zero” is offensive to some people. If this building is blocked by such sentiment it will boost the efforts of the Islamic Supremacists to outlaw all speech and actions that are deemed offensive. The Wahibiists couldn’t find a better ally in their quest for dominance than the Republican party. In fact, given that Prince Alwaleed bin Talal owns 10% of News Corp (FOX), and FOX has beaten the drum to make this a national story, this is clearly a conspiracy to trick Americans into supporting the Wahibiist goal of elevating “freedom from offense” to a human right that transcends all others.

Nowhere in our Constitution are American’s rights suspended because exercising them would be offensive or unpopular. Vigorous defense of rights in such situations is what makes us a strong and vibrant country and an inspiration to most of the world’s people. A true American response to this building is to embrace it while still exercising all our freedoms around it. We can walk our dogs in front of it. We can proselytize to their patrons, and wear bikinis or dress in drag while at it. We can put up signs and murals critical of Islam. We can hold religious events in the streets around it. The Westboro Baptist Church can picket it, if they like. This is America.

But we must not give in to hatred and bigotry. And we must not fuel the Islamic Supremacist’s campaign to silence criticism of their beliefs.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Mosque of Intolerance

Certain extremists, with the help of the media, have created a controversy over plans to expand a Moslem community center a couple of blocks from the former World Trade Center. Although these groups are unabashedly Islamophobic, a large part of their argument is that building an Islamic center that may be partially visible from a few locations on the upper floors of the commercial buildings that may be built on the “hallowed ground” of the 9/11 site will be offensive to some people. It is claimed that the proponents are being insensitive to the feelings of the families of the 9/11 victims and Americans in general. There is a reason this argument resonates with a large numbers of political pundits, the media, and the population as a whole (70% of Americans oppose the project).

There is an increasingly contentious debate about how far society and individuals can or should go in regulating speech and behavior that is deemed “offensive” by some group. Fatwas against authors, violent attacks on cartoonists, laws against head coverings, laws against holocaust denial, and demonstrators at military funerals have all forced upon us a public debate about to what extent, if any, do people have a right to restrict acts they find offensive. A surprising number of people, across the political spectrum, believe that speech should be restricted if it might hurt someone’s feelings. I, and others, believe that no one should be silenced because others are offended by what they say or do.

The later half of the century saw an explosion in “Conspiracy Theories”. By distorting and filtering facts and torturing logic and reason, a core of rabid believers could be created for any idea, no matter how absurd. The government is covering up the truth about UFOs, JFK’s assassination, and Elvis’ death, don’t cha know. Certain Christian and Islamic fundamentalists began promoting the idea that the Holocaust never happened, that it was a made up story by the Jews to take over the world. The Holocaust deniers published books to support their fantasies. They made speeches and gained supporters. Their denials understandably offended many people. Ultimately laws were passed throughout Europe making it a crime to publish or make public speeches promoting the denialist claims. These laws are an affront to the concept of freedom of speech, and they play into the hands of religious fundamentalists.

When Salomon Rushdie published his fictional work “Satanic Verses”, some Moslem clerics were so outraged that they issued a fatwa calling for his death. This sent Rushdie into hiding and greatly increased sales of a mediocre work. It offended some Moslems because he dared to discuss the the Koranic verses that cause so many problems for the Moslem apologists (the ones where Mohamed appears to be channeling the devil, not Gabriel). Incredibly, many people in the West criticized Rushdie for going too far and offending Moslem sensibilities, rather than staunchly defending free speech and freedom of expression. Moslems point to the European laws against holocaust denial to support their outlawing of Rushdie’s fictional work.

When Danish paper Jyllands-Posten published a cartoon showing Muhammad wearing a bomb in his turban the Islamic world was worked into a frenzy of offense by a few clerics (who lied and manipulated the crowds by including drawings they made up in the list of allegedly offensive publications). Their outrage caused the cartoons to be far more widely circulated. Many people were killed in the riots that followed. Many western news outlets, including Fox news, cowardly refused to republish the offending cartoon because they didn’t want to offend Moslem sensibilities.

In 2004 filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was stabbed to death following a fatwa against him because he produced a film ("Submission") critical of the Islamic treatment of women. Since that time the publishing of numerous books and articles about Islam have been cancelled or delayed because the publishers were threatened by groups claiming the work was offensive. Authors have been arrested and beaten. The western press, including Fox, have either not reacted to this outrageous suppression of freedom or supported it in the interest of avoiding offense.

Now we have an Islamic group preparing to build an Islamic community center two blocks from the 9/11 site. It may be partially visible from the new buildings at the 9/11 site once they are completed. Some people find this offensive, and islamophobe Pamela Geller has been exploiting feelings about 9/11 to generate opposition to the Islamic center. Yet the proponents have refused to validate that offense by changing their plans. It is understandable that all those groups and individuals who have kowtowed to Islamic sensibility over the past dozen years are now upset because the Moslems refuse to reciprocate. The refusal to yield to their offended feelings is, I am sure, what infuriates the center’s opponents the most.

Perhaps now they understand that it is very bad policy to have speech and actions limited by any group’s emotional reactions. People do not have a right to not be offended by someone else’s speech (or dress, or activities). This is be a virtually impossible goal since someone is bound to be offended by almost anything. Many atheists, for example, are offended by public display of crosses. Does that mean they should be banned in public? Of course not.

If the accomodationists want to match the radical Islamists for intolerance, they could respond to the proposed Islamic Center by making veiled threats about “2nd amendment” solutions and picketing at the site carrying pictures of Timothy McVeigh.

Here’s how I would respond: Erect a billboard (or paint a mural on the side of a building) in full view of the center, and between the center and the 9/11 site, with Kurt Westergaard's cartoon of Mohamed on it. It would be a great lesson in tolerance for everyone. Maybe some of those organizations that opted for accommodation in the past would help support it…