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Conscience and Politics

Recently I've been very bothered to see contraception a topic again in American politics; the implementation of health care reform means the country has to start to get on the same page in what types of health services we're going to offer, and health care is tied enough to the details of how we live our lives that this means we're going to talk about norms. Unfortunately, we're not having an entirely honest debate.

The conservative side on this (and I am not meaning to imply all conservatives share this; my mother for example is fairly conservative but is very very hostile to the stance I'm labelling conservative here) is that premarital sex is bad, and that the battle over access to contraception is carte blanche for premarital sex; as an enabler of antisocial conservative they want it stopped. The dishonesty I'd like to talk about is actually either dishonesty or inconsistency, depending on the person; it's framing this as a freedom-of-conscience/I-don't-want-to-pay-for-it struggle. The latter framing does not hold water; if we really held that nobody should individually have to pay for government costs they don't approve of, I'd certainly never pay a dime for military chaplains, particular wars I disapprove of, faith-based initiatives, parts of the "war" on drugs, and a number of other things. This is something I think they would never accept, and it is also extremely bad governance. The meaning of democracy includes a notion that we decide together how to run society and bear the costs together, although it's even more general than that; it's how societies *must* work. On the freedom-of-conscience matter, that has a tiny amount of additional meat, mostly wrapped in nonsense. We're not actually talking about freedom of conscience, as we're not talking about restricting conscience, just action. What we're actually talking about is a related intuition (that lacks a good name); the idea that a decent state doesn't force people to perform acts they might find morally reprehensible. Even this intuition does not squarely apply in that it's mediated through the measure of funding; this is not about requiring any direct action, just that they provide a plan that includes contraceptive cover. Still, I hold that this is an unworkable intuition, even in the stronger form. The contents of conscience can be arbitrary in a given person, and to have the state yield on these matters without severely restricted scope amounts to granting special legal privilege to people based on their faith (or possibly philosophy). I contend (but won't argue here right now) that that's both a quagmire and it is reprehensible. It destroys rule of law in the name of an impossible liberty.

As you probably can guess from my general political persuasion (and past statements on my blog), I believe we should have universal health care in this country, I believe that contraceptives should be free (compare the cost of contraceptives to an unwanted child, and consider the life of people raised by unwilling/unable parents, just as solid starters). If those few people (a minority of Catholics, a much slimmer minority of others) who are bothered by the idea of contraceptives would just be honest enough to say they have a problem with contraceptives rather than hide behind this either-dishonest-or-inconsistent claim of religious liberty, I would appreciate it. Mainstream society would probably consider them moonbats, but at least they'd be judging the perspective based on what it's actually about.

On other topics:

  • I typically get grumbly when people just list some authors they think I should read when I don't accept their political stance; especially if I've already read the authors and find them unconvincing. Most recently this came up in a radical politics discussion where someone was angry that I identify as socialist but don't hate cops or see them primarily as an instrument of racist oppression. Why yes I have read Malcolm X, MLKJr, Zinn, Chomsky, and even Mumia. We've both read them. Do you honestly think they're so wonderful that any intelligent person would agree with every point they make? Oh well, at least they didn't use that "Police Brutality 101" trope. As I've occasionally said, any social movement is likely to be at least 30% bullshit, even the most worthy of them. The people, the theory, the factions within the movement, etc. If you're committed to the cause, this should not dissuade you; go in there, be committed to eventually read all the important arguments, and be ready to argue and draw lines and take sides. A cause benefits almost as much from vigorous internal debate as it does from activism.
  • An interesting analysis by Noam Chomsky on American decline. I think he's got it wrong; I'd call American dominance a necessarily temporary bubble, created and limited by the logic of capitalism. Countries cannot outsource widely without creating elites overseas (or having some of their own wealthy "defect" and living like kings in client countries), and those elites eventually will do so on behalf of those other countries and compete with the powerful outsourcing nations. The west (slowly and injustly) made its competitors through the very thing that turned a moderate advantage (education, infrastructure) into a domineering one. We may have sped our decline by failing to continue to invest in what gave us that advantage to begin with, but our military blunders had little to do with that.
  • We're seeing fantastic progress on gay marriage in a number of states; most recently Washington saw a win, and Maryland is likely the next. It's still sad that we need to advance civil rights on a state-by-state basis, but it's still progress. As we know from many other civil rights matters in the past (most notably slavery), the legal push tends to be both a result of changing societal attitudes and a cause of them.
  • I'd like to have some kind of measure of how many cubic meters and pounds of things I have; being able to put numbers to that kind of thing would make it easier to throw things away that I don't need.
  • I'm hoping that being known as not being a pacifist is giving my writings against war with Iran some additional weight, but that's always an uncomfortable topic with actual doves. I always hope that people are more willing to respect people whose opinions turn on data and whose worldview is gritty enough to actually work outside of theory, and that those who see the damage enabled by deep pacifism and discount such perspectives will listen to folk like me. Hard to say though.