Thursday, October 7, 2010

What are the limits of free speech?

Just yesterday the US Supreme Court heard arguments in the case against the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. At issue is the question of whether church members (most of whom are relatives of Pastor Fred Phelps) would be allowed to demonstrate at military funerals. In their protests, WBC expresses a very extreme anti gay message--so extreme as to be shocking to virtually any American.

Members carry signs with hateful messages such as "God hate fags" and "Thank God for dead soldiers." Their thinking is that since the soldiers and marines being buried died defending the United States-which in their mind supports homosexuality because of the enactment of gay rights laws--God willed their deaths.

Wow. its hard to imagine a more twisted was of thinking. It may even top the Rev. Terry Jones in Florida who recently came within an inch of staging a mass Koran burning.

But a vital part of our constitutional foundation is the right to free speech as guaranteed by the first amendment. Rev. Phelps, whose daughter is the attorney arguing the case, believes his conduct is constitutionally protected. But is it?

At what point does "free" speech cross the line and become a psychological attack on someone by way of proximity?

The court's ruling isn't expected until next Spring. It will be greatly anticipated.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Why is There a Debate About Debates?

One of the saddest realities of politics is hubris, a trait that often shows itself nonverbally--as opposed to its more uplifting cousin, humility--the commitment to which is all too common in a candidate’s campaign ads.

These two opposites are especially pronounced in this year's governor's race. Republican nominee Rick Snyder's advocacy of his business background and his promise to create jobs rings a bit hollow when he refuses to articulate his plan in a debate with his opponent, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernaro. Why? The smugness created by his double digit lead in the polls and his fear of making a gaffe. Does this sound like a good approach to you?

I say no way. If Snyder wants to lead this state, he has to be prepared for uncomfortable situations. He has to be skilled at addressing hostile audiences. Not to mention the right of the electorate to face the media, and each other, side by side in an honest debate.

So how about it Rick? You only have ONE chance.

Monday, September 6, 2010

It's Still the Economy, Stupid

Right at this moment, Bill Rinney has taken up occupancy on the roof of the Washnenaw County building in Ann Arbor to protest continued high unemployment, both here in Michigan and across the nation.

Extreme measures like this are only prompted by extreme circumstances. Despite the power of the hot button social issues to motivate voters along both fronts in the "culture war," economic distress never loses its ability to trump all other issues. In THIS world, without economic security, nothing else matters.

Small, incremental improvements have occured of late. The Obama administration points out that private sector employment patterns have resulted in a net increase in the numbver of jobs for the past six months--due in part to the positive effects of the stimulus bill. Recently Michigan lost its infamous distinction of having the worst unemployment rate in the country. Nevada's been kind enough to take it off our hands.

The recession began long before Barack Obama took office, but the memory of the American voter is short. Times are still desperate, and the accompanying emotions errodes people's patience.

But the question still demands a clear head--WHO can best create policies and programs to create jobs and restore confidence?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Just What is Freedom?

For all of my adult life, I've been an avid follower of politics, and the longer I do the more frustrated I get at the tendency of certain groups to hijack and distort the meanings of key words, phrases and even whole paragraphs from our nation's founding documents.

At its core, freedom should be defined by the five basic rights guaranteed by the first amendment: freedom of worship, freedom of speech, as well as freedom of the press, assembly and petition to the government. All of these are deeply rooted in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which stresses the rights of the individual and the primacy of one's conscience over the old dogmatic approaches of Europe which were rooted in religion. Contrary to popular belief, our nation was NOT founded on Christian or "Judeo-Christian" principles. Most of the founding fathers were either deists of nominal Christians.

As our country evolved, we matured in our understanding of freedom. At the time of the adoption of our Constitution, voting was limited to white property owning males. This accounted for a mere three percent of the population at the time. In 1865 the thirteenth amendment ended slavery, although it would be another 100 years before the freedom to vote could be not be denied on account of race. In 1920 women were grated suffrage, creating the first crack in the glass ceiling that lead to freedoms they enjoy today.

History contains many other examples. In recent times, however, cable n"news" journalists, conservative radio hosts and many groups belonging to the religious right have taken a very peculiar view towards freedom. Clothed in vague language, they claim that they are defending "time honored American traditions" and furthering the cause of freedom by opposing gay marriage, hate crime laws protecting minorities and basically any laws that take government out of the boardroom but have no qualms about inserting it in the bedroom.

And all the while they seldom miss an opportunity to utter the word "freedom" in their speeches and on their websites.

These groups are no longer composed of just Bible Belt fundamentalists. In recent years, a disturbing and highly intolerant right wing has emerged within the American Catholic Church. Some can rightly be called hate groups.

These groups arrogantly promote the rights of THEIR constituency at the expense of minorities. Just what is freedom?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Let's Talk About Sex (the gender gap, that is)

In the short time since Michigan's gubernatorial primaries, there has not been a great amount of time to "slice and dice" the electorate with regard to detailed polling data.

I certainly hope some of this research finds its way into the media soon, since there is a particular topic of voter behavior I'm especially interested in: the often talked about gender gap.

The gender gap was first discovered by demographers around 1980. In virtually every presidential election since then (and in a great many state races, with some variance from region to region) female voters have shown a consistent tendency to lean more Democratic and liberal in their voting than their male counterparts; after taking other relevant factors (race, income, etc.) into account. Traditionally, Michigan has been no exception.

Several theories have been advanced as the to the underlying cause of the gender gap. One suggest that as the economic vitality of America's suburbs became more ensconced, female voters could afford the luxury of turning their attention to concerns that directly impacted their identities as women: abortion rights, pay equity etc., all issues associated with Democrats. For a time after 9/11, some studies appeared to show movement back to Republicans, as concerns over homeland security became for paramount. "From soccer moms to security moms," became a popular phrase. This shift, however, appears to have been only temporary.

At this point, Michigan's tattered economy and high level of anxiety regarding the future seems to have worked in the Rick Snyder and the Republicans' favor.

But, beware! Aside from it being early in the campaign season, hidden surprises can fly up from under the radar at any time and upset the apple cart. Let's not forget about the Tea Party, the gender gap, and any other potential surprises.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Why Don't Young People Vote?

According to figures from the Michigan Secretary of State, statewide turnout in the August 3 primary election was 22.9% or approximately 1.7 million of registered voters. While Terry Lynn Land commented on her website that she expects substantially greater numbers in the November general election, the primary figures sound an all too familiar chord: Michigan voter participation is terrible.

Although the SOS doesn't break down the numbers demographically, it's no secret that young people ages 18 - 25 represent the the most apathetic group of voters. This is especially ironic considering that the young people of the sixties and early seventies were the strongest proponents of the twenty sixth amendment (1972), which mandated that states' minimum voting age be no higher than eighteen.

So why the dismal turnout? Political scientist Eric Plutzer at Pennsylvania State University theorizes that our more transient society has introduced changes into our social fabric that work against regular voting.

"Most young citizens aged eighteen to thirty fall into the unregistered group." Using data from several dozen nationwide voting surveys, Plutzer has tried to figure out why some young adults mature into habitual voters, others become periodic voters, and some never develop the voting habit at all.

"Young Americans may relocate for college, their first job, or their first mature love interest," Plutzer notes. "When young people move into an apartment, they make sure they have electricity, phone and internet service, and cable. Registering to vote isn't at the top of their to-do list.

So what is the answer? perhaps a radical change in how our elections are administered; such as holding them on a Sunday, or perhaps over several days in oder to be more accomodating to today's hectic lifestyles. Another possibility is to harness new technologies (including voting via the internet, with proper security precautions) which may enable the eighteenth century idea of democracy to be executed in out twnty first century world.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Sound of Indecision

Today I took an extended Sunday drive with my wife up to where a lot of metro Detroiters go when they want to get a taste of the country and remain with a half day's journey home--Michigan's thumb.

We drove up M-29 from Selfridge Air National Guard base through Algonac, Marine City, St.Clair and Marysville before passing through Port Huron and onto Lexington and Port Sanilac before turing around to head home.

It was a beautiful drive, and along the way I had the chance to chat with a few people about how they felt about the governor's race and their feeling about the state of the state in general.

While visiting the annual summer art fair in Lexington, I met two kinds of people: those who identified as Republicans or Democrats (whose preferences would presumably be obvious) and a much greater number who’s seemed ambivalent, indecisive or even apathetic.

This part struck me as strange. You'd think in a state suffering from perpetual recession including an eye-popping level of unemployment the locals would be burning a path to the polls.

Not so. In last Tuesday's primary, only about twenty three percent of registered Michigan voters got their butts to their local precinct. Experience suggests the turnout will be higher in the November general election, but still--just what's going on?

I'll be exploring that question in my next several posts.