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Overreach begets overreach in birth-control debate

20 Feb

There must be some kind of Newtonian law for politics, along the lines of, “For every overreach there is an equal and opposite overreach.” Case in point.

President Obama had been warned: Don’t force religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover contraceptives, and it’s no secret that more than a few religious groups, including the Roman Catholic Church, teach that using artificial birth control is morally wrong.

But on Jan. 20, that’s exactly what Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced would happen. The Administration’s idea of an olive branch at that point was to give religious-based organizations and institutions, such as Catholic hospitals, universities and charities, a year to figure out how to comply.

The reaction was literally predictable. The American Catholic bishops were ready with their message: This is nothing less than a trespass on the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion.

For the first three weeks, that message reverberated enough to stir up a broad coalition. Not only the usual suspects who oppose the very ground the president walks on, but even left-leaning Catholic leaders, who support the right to birth control, saw this as a classic church-state battle, a war on religion.

Then on Feb. 10, the president announced an “accommodation”: religious institutions would not be required to offer contraception coverage, pay for it, or even inform their employees about it. Instead, women would deal directly with health insurers. The president painted this new arrangement as an effort to balance the concerns of conscience with the rights of Americans to receive the health-care options they wanted.

The Administration avoided words like “compromise” and “climb down,” but that’s what it was. It had overreached and got its hand smacked.

A good number of Catholics and other religious leaders applauded the move at first, but not all and not for long. The bishops and other critics pressed the president, saying the accommodation wasn’t accommodating enough, that it was only window dressing. The war-on-religion rhetoric got louder and shriller.

And that’s when that political law of physics kicked in, because last week—maybe during the House hearings on religious liberty—the fulcrum of the debate shifted from being about freedom of religion to being about church leaders who want to force their morality on the nation. The big media story changed.

Suddenly, the church wasn’t the victim of government imposition but the ones doing the imposing, threatening the reproductive rights of American women. The church leaders had been winning the public debate, but because they did not strategically settle for the win, they handed critics had the opening they needed.

Along the way, critics took shots at the bishops’ for their apparent inconsistencies in what social issues they choose to address or not address, and, inevitably, about the sex-abuse scandals. Could the word “hypocrite” be far behind?

Suddenly, they were the ones who looked overreaching.

The president was amazingly tone-deaf when he issued the initial contraceptive rule. He tried to fix it, but he’ll continue to pay for his mistake whenever an opponent wants to raise the specter of a secularized chief executive, a president who doesn’t share the world view of most Americans, who doesn’t follow “a real theology.” (Hello, Rick Santorum.)

But the president’s critics, particularly the Catholic bishops, overreached when they kept pushing after he compromised because they made themselves easy targets for opponents to raise the specter of power-hungry theocrats who don’t care about women’s health.

Of course, the bishops aren’t trying to get re-elected in November.

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White House announcing ‘accommodations’ for religious objections to contraceptive rule

10 Feb

Today President Obama is announcing new “accommodations” for religious nonprofit organizations that object to a rule requiring them to provide contraception coverage in their employees’ insurance plans. The rule has brewed up a political and PR storm for the Administration since the Department of Health and Human Services announced it on Jan. 20.

While churches were exempted from the rule, other religious organizations and charities, such as hospitals and universities, were not, even those affiliated with denominations that teach contraception is morally wrong. Critics said the rule effectively trespassed on religious freedom.

During a Friday morning conference call with reporters, senior administration officials outlined the new “accommodations,” under which women will have free preventive care that includes contraceptive services no matter where they work. “The policy also ensures that if a woman works for religious employers with objections to providing contraceptive services as part of its health plan, the religious employer will not be required to provide contraception coverage, but her insurance company will be required to offer contraceptive care free of charge,” according to a White House fact sheet.

The officials, speaking on background, said these provisions will be “cost neutral,” pointing out that there were no insurance premium increases when contraception was added to the Federal Employees Health Benefit System and that one study found that “covering contraception lowered premiums by 10 percent or more,” partly because women who use contraceptives typically stay healthier.

So: religious organizations will not need to provide contraceptive coverage or refer their employees to organizations that provide contraception. They will not be required to subsidize the cost of contraception. Coverage will be offered to women by their employers’ insurance companies directly, “with no role for religious employers who oppose contraception,” according to the White House. Insurance companies will be required to provide contraception coverage to these women free of charge.

The White House has been under fire since announcing the rule last month, with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops leading the charge, saying the administration was threatening religious liberty. Other religious leaders and groups, including Orthodox, evangelicals and liberal Catholics (as well as Republican party leaders and presidential candidates) also joined the opposition.

Administration officials insisted today that a one-year transition for religious organizations, announced Jan. 20, was intended to give time to “work out solutions” in implementation. But reporters pushed back, since the initial announcement stated the one-year period would give organizations time to “comply with the new law” and “adapt to this new rule.” One reporter asked if the White House had “a messaging problem.”

Polarized politics, righteous minds, and Dr. Who

6 Feb

Working on a project the other day, I came across this quotation, courtesy of that brilliant British social critic, Dr. Who (circa 1977):

“The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. Instead of altering their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views—which can be very uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.”

The quote is out there. When I searched on the Internet to confirm the source, I found it at several other web sites, including this one and this one.

See? The left and right really can find common ground. Except I have a hunch they’ll differ about who exactly are “the very powerful and the very stupid.”

But seriously, folks …

Bill Moyers broadcast a fascinating interview on Sunday with philosopher and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt about why American liberals and conservatives see the world so differently, to the point that our current political polarization seems inevitable. While U.S. politics has always been rough and tumble, the consensus is that we’re witnessing something different in our time, something toxic. It seems that most public debates don’t stop at disagreement these days. Now we push on to personal demonization. I’m not talking only about recent televised debates among professional politicians. I’ve been tempted to cancel my Facebook account a few times in the last six months because of the rancor coming from some amateurs.

Jonathan Haidt, appearing on "Moyers and Co."

“When it gets so that your opponents are not just people you disagree with, but … the mental state in which I am fighting for good, and you are fighting for evil, it’s very difficult to compromise,” Haidt told Moyers. “Compromise becomes a dirty word.”

Haidt, who teaches social psychology at the University of Virginia and is a visiting professor of business ethics at NYU-Stern School of Business, traces the roots of our current state of affairs to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Moyers himself was involved in those pieces of legislation, as President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary.) He also offered a couple of realistic suggestions about how we might start reducing the temperature and return to more civil discourse and a more functional public life. To view the Moyers-Haidt interview, go here.

If you’re wondering where Haidt himself stands, he said he began his research as a confirmed liberal but now describes himself as a moderate. In his opinion, he said, conservative intellectuals understand basic human nature better than liberal intellectuals. That statement alone could prompt a good conversation either in a classroom or a dining room. (Go ahead. Don’t let me stop you.)

He has a new book coming out in March that explores the connections between morality and politics, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon). I don’t pre-order many books, but after listening to Haidt, I think I’ll make an exception.

~~

Coming soon: Notes about the new rule from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that will require all health-insurance providers–including religion-based organizations–to provide contraceptives to women, even if the religious organization believes it is wrong. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a growing number of other church leaders are calling this an infringement of religious liberty.

S.C. postcard (2): Stereotypes save time, but …

29 Jan

The South Carolina GOP primary on Jan. 21 is already fading into the distance—maybe especially to Newt Gingrich. Even so, as I thought about my voting-day visit there, I kept coming back to at least one takeaway: Curb the stereotypes. An old lesson, maybe, but one that apparently needs repeating.

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The stereotype, in this case, is someone who is a belligerent, ultra-conservative white Christian (probably Baptist), probably racist in deed and attitude if not in word, and eager to create something like a modern-day theocracy. Those folks are out there, to be sure. I met a few of them.

But the picture is more complicated than that, even in Greenwood, a town of 22,000 souls in the rural southwest corner of the state. That is, we’re not talking about a one of the large, more cosmopolitan centers like Charleston, Columbia or even Greenville. Even in little old Greenwood, it’s not clear that the stereotype fits the majority.

For instance, the first person I talked to in Greenwood was Blake Kendrick, associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Greenwood. That congregation is aligned not with the Southern Baptist Convention but the (moderate-progressive-liberal-whatever) Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Let that sink in a moment: First Baptist Church is not a traditional or necessarily conservative Baptist church. For one thing, Kendrick said he and the senior pastor, Tony Hopkins, “believe in the absolute separation of church and state,” a position he says is the historic Baptist position but would also likely put them in the minority of pastors in the area. (Considering the few other pastors I talked with there, he’s probably right about that.)

“The church doesn’t need leaders in the government to endorse Christian ideas to be effective leaders,” Kendrick said. “If a person was another faith that I believed was an effective leader and would make a good decisions, then I’d be more prone to vote for those proven abilities as a leader than religious ideas. … I say any candidate who’s using religious jargon: you immediately lost credit—and credibility.”

The population of Greenwood is anything but monolithic, with a population that was about 44 percent white and about 44 percent African-American in the 2010 census.

Given the state’s charged racial history, it would be easy to conclude that Caucasians rule the roost or that the black citizens are passive. It would also be easy to assume that the Republicans dominate the politics, especially since Greenwood County voted solidly for the GOP presidential candidates the last two elections. (About 60 percent of the county’s vote went to John McCain in 2008.)

Renee Little working at Greenwood's 2nd precinct during the Jan. 21 primary

Both assumptions would be wrong. Almost one-third of the county’s 37,953 registered voters are African-American, and they are active. Floyd Nicholson, who’s not only African-American but also a Democrat, served as the town’s mayor from 1994 to 2008—until he was elected state senator. Two of the six city council members, including Mayor Pro Tem Linda Edwards, are African-American. (They also are two of the three women on the council.)

Even Barack Obama added to Greenwood electoral lore, when he visited early in his 2008 campaign, while he was still a long-shot. Three poll workers at Precinct 2, which is predominantly African-American, gleefully told how one of their friends, Edith Childs, woke up an early-morning, sparsely attended gathering with the candidate with a call-and-response that took on a life of its own in the national campaign: “Fired up? Ready to go?” Obama still likes to tell the story.

This isn’t to ignore real differences and divisions that exist, or the fact that stereotypes evolve for a reason. Political scientists and pollsters build their careers on broadbrush analysis that explains why South Carolina votes one way and New Hampshire votes another.

Maybe that’s why it’s easy to forget that no place is merely the sum of its stereotypes and individuals are bigger than our labels. Most of us are more complex, more nuanced, more varied and even more intelligent than that, at least on our good days.

I confess it’s tempting, especially during an election season, to start a sentence with these lazy words: “Those people are just a bunch of …”

Greenwood reminded me that’s a temptation to resist.

Primary postcards from South Carolina (1)

24 Jan

The four GOP candidates debated in Charleston, S.C.: Santorum, Romney, Gingrich and Paul. Gingrich received a standing ovation for his put-down of the "elite media" after moderator John King opened with a question about Gingrich's open marriage.

We need to read only a few descriptions of South Carolina politics before a few c-words keep coming up: combative, conservative and Christian.

So what did religion have to do with Newt Gingrich’s primary victory in South Carolina on Saturday?

Not a lot.

When it came to pulling the lever, voters who identified themselves as Christians, and specifically as evangelicals, pulled for Gingrich, a converted Roman Catholic. long-time Washington insider and confessed serial adulterer.

He beat former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney easily, 40 percent to 28 percent. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, the candidate endorsed by a group of 150 evangelical leaders a week before, finished a distant third. “I like Santorum personally,” one pastor told me, “but he’s not strong enough” to beat the president. So much for the power of formal evangelical endorsements.

Gingrich, on the other hand, made the case that he’d be the Republican tough and distinctive enough to defeat President Obama in November. And getting Obama out of the White House was the top agenda item on GOP minds in South Carolina.

By 9:30 Saturday morning, Ashley Woodiwiss, a political scientist at Erskine College, knew the day would belong to the former Speaker of the House. Last-minute polls placed Gingrich up by 7 or 8 percentage points. Those were low-ball figures, it turned out. Only a week earlier, Romney was leading.

Gingrich’s turnaround came after one of his ex-wives revealed two days before the voting that he had asked for an “open marriage.” Instead of running away from the revelation, Gingrich turned it into an attack on the news media. At the Thursday-night debate, CNN correspondent and moderator John King gave the candidate an easy target by leading with a question about the affair. Gingrich went after King and blasted the “liberal media elite” (always a safe play). “That sealed the deal,” Woodiwiss said. “We like strong personalities.”

No kidding. South Carolina, after all, gave us Tea-Party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint, Rep. Joe Wilson (famous for shouting “You lie!” at President Obama during a 2009 speech to Congress about health care) and the late Sen. Strom Thurmond—not to mention the opening scene of the War Between the States, AKA the Civil War. South Carolina can be combative, remember.

Gingrich won every county in the state, except for a few around the largest cities, Charleston and Columbia, which Romney claimed. Gingrich took several of the most rural, far-flung counties by two-to-one margins.

I spent the day in Greenwood, a small town about 55 miles south of Greenville, to talk about religion and politics. The town is home to Lander University and about 23,000 residents, almost evenly white and black, according to the 2010 census.

It’s also home to one of the highest unemployment rates in the state (well over 10 percent), one of the highest and fastest-growing poverty rates in the country (about 38 percent), and one of the lowest high school graduation rates (about 30 percent of adults don’t have the diploma). By just about every economic and educational measure, Greenwood makes the rest of the state look strong.

I spoke to more than dozen people on Saturday, including a few Episcopalians, a Methodist and a Mormon couple. Most, however, were Southern Baptists. (That generally fits the profile of Greenwood County, which boasts at least 116 congregations for about 69,000 residents.)

By no means a scientific sampling, but only one person expressed the slightest concern about Romney’s Mormon faith, and none felt misgivings about Santorum’s and Gingrich’s Catholicism. Ron Paul attends a Baptist church in Texas, but that didn’t win him any of these particular votes. Serious doctrinal differences counted for almost nothing. Denominational identity counted for even less.

As for Gingrich’s moral baggage, Alvin Hodges, the senior pastor of Rice Memorial Baptist Church (and a South Carolina native), summed up the consensus view: Gingrich confessed, apologized and “tried to make it right. It’s not an issue now.” All is forgiven.

“Values voters are as pragmatic as anyone,” Woodiwiss, the political scientist, pointed out. “The No. 1 goal (for Republicans) is to beat Obama. Who’s best to beat him? It’s about ideology, not theology.”

More postcards to come …

Q: Should newspapers fact-check candidates? A: Define ‘fact check.’ Or maybe define ‘newspaper.’

16 Jan

A friend sent me the link to a post from the left-leaning Alternet (click here), about a brouhaha over whether the New York Times should be “fact checking” the presidential candidates. The dust-up started because, among other things, the Times reporters never called out GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney for falsely claiming in stump speeches that President Obama gives speeches “apologizing for America.” (One of the Times columnists did.)

So Arthur Brisbane, the Times’ “public editor” (AKA ombudsman), put it to his readers: Should Times reporters engage is fact checking the candidates’ claims in their stories? You can probably guess what readers said–loudly. (One sample: “Is this a joke? THIS IS YOUR JOB.”) His responses to the criticisms attracted even more scorn.

To be fair, I wonder how Brisbane was defining “fact checking.” He may have in mind a PolitiFact model of publishing “scorecards” and rating the “truthiness” of specific statements. The Times is NOT set up for that kind of blow-by-blow tracking, nor are many news organizations. Even when NPR pointed out Romney’s error on Jan. 10, its report cited Politifact.com as a source.

That’s not to let them off the hook, especially since there’s some uncomfortable prior history of the Times not being thorough in fact checking. (See: Judith Miller and the case for invading Iraq in 2003.) More profoundly, the news media are supposed to be the “Fourth Estate,” the so-called watchdog of those in authority (and those who would be in authority). A healthy, working democracy needs a vibrant, vigilant media: That’s Poli Sci 101. (Exhibit A: The tagline on the Columbia Journalism Review: “Strong Press, Strong Democracy.”)

So this is a matter of priorities and focus. What’s the goal of the Times’ campaign coverage? If I had to guess, I’d say they see their main job as telling people what happened or what was said on the campaign trail, day by day. Cleaning up the statements of candidates is secondary, something to do when or if possible or when there’s such an obvious howler that it can’t be ignored (or maybe if it’s just so easy to catch).

This isn’t the best way to cover a presidential campaign–what with the future of the country at stake and all–and I doubt anyone in the Times newsroom would say it was. I don’t believe many reporters want to give Romney or “the establishment” or even Obama a free pass. Most journalists have more professional integrity than that. (If you can’t believe that, maybe you can believe they’d just love to win a Pulitzer by uncovering the next Watergate.) I think the lapse in “fact checking” is more a matter of microeconomics than macroeconomics or ideology.

This problem is a result of ever-shrinking newsrooms being overwhelmed by an ever-expanding amounts of information and PR, especially coming from well-funded campaigns like Romney’s (and when the time comes, Obama’s). If the Times’ newsroom is like most others in the U.S., as well endowed as it is, it has likely cut its research staff to the bone, if not eliminated it altogether. At the same time, thanks to the handheld technology of iPhones and tablets and the glories of the Internet and 24/7 cable TV news, reporters must file multiple stories or updates each day, sometimes dozens. That simply leaves too much information for too few workers with too little time to sort, analyze and explain. I’m sure campaign managers have figured out that they can avoid a lot of close, timely scrutiny if they simply swamp the newsrooms.

Why is this happening, if it’s damaging the ability of reporters to actually do their jobs? The newsroom is not the boardroom. Corporations that own media outlets have been cutting newsroom staff and resources for more than a decade to increase their bottom lines. (Just a handful of multinational corporations own thousands of newspapers and other news outlets in the U.S.) The financial interests of company stockholders can trump the political interests of citizen stakeholders. Ironically, I’m convinced, this is penny wise and pound foolish, as the old saying goes: As news owners milk short-term profits by slashing reporting resources, they’re damaging their outlets’ long-term value in the process. Why would anyone pay for thin reporting or PR pass-alongs?

There’s one more log to throw on this fire: Thanks to the Citizens United decision, all corporations–including those that own media–can boot up their donations to political campaigns. (Tangential question: If corporations have First Amendment rights like individuals–and therefore can give money to political campaigns–shouldn’t they be allowed to vote? I’m confused. If “money is the mother’s milk of politics,” then the Supreme Court is inconsistent and ignoring reality.) The net effect: Corporate support for journalism (i.e., the public interest) is down. Corporate support for partisan politics (i.e., personal and company benefits) is up.

This isn’t a conspiracy. It’s just one of the results of a social and political culture that has more and more organized itself around self-interest and profit. So we don’t only get the government we deserve. We also get the government watchdogs we deserve.

~~

Postscript, Jan. 18: This pot continues to boil. Go here for a thoughtful discussion of the New York Times’ fact-checking controversy, courtesy of Lucas Graves and the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Learning to love nuclear power

30 Mar

One reason I appreciate a good newspaper/news site is its potential for stopping people like me in our tracks to make us think fresh thoughts (if not always change our minds) while events are fresh, maybe even still in progress. Strike while the iron’s hot, right?

A column in the Guardian, a national British newspaper, provided a valuable example this week. Like any good column, this isn’t objective “reporting,” but it uses “reportage” to make a point. In this case, George Monbiot, a regular writer for the Guardian, makes the case FOR nuclear power, which isn’t what you’d expect from an environmental activist. His column came out just a few days ago — that is, after the tsunami hit the Japanese nuclear plant in Fukushima, sending entire nations, such as Germany, into full retreat from their nuclear programs.

The fearful responses are understandable. I’m not all that comfortable with nuclear power, and the Japanese disaster has resurrected old fears around the world. On the other hand, living in southern Appalachia, I’m not all that thrilled with what the coal industry is doing to the environment either. Mountaintop removal, anyone?

I don’t discount for a moment how many jobs rely on coal mining. But we need a long-term energy plan that will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, both coal and oil, and we have only so many options.

That’s Monbiot’s point: nuclear isn’t perfect, but by analyzing data he’s concluded it’s not only a viable option, but a more desirable and safer option than fossil fuels.

What to do? It’s not a simple issue, and I’m not really sure. But I’m grateful for Monbiot and other writers who don’t impose artificially simple solutions on complicated problems and retreat into predictable positions. Rather than steer away from complexity, he did his homework and drove a surprising route right into the middle of it.

I wish more journalists would do that.

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