Saturday, June 27, 2015

Three Things

I still don't know what this blog is about, other than being a place to work out some stuff rattling around in my head.  So far I have avoided writing about politics and social issues, but the last couple of weeks have been a wild ride for us here in the U.S.A.  I grew up, live, and work in "the South", where the majority of my family, friends and co-workers are unabashedly conservative, religious, and mostly Republican with a smattering of Libertarians rounding out the crowd.  They are also, for the most part, very good people with whom I can have thoughtful conversations on a wide variety of issues, and the fact that I often fall into the liberal camp doesn't seem to have cost me any friends.

Still, I've really been thinking a lot about some of the things that have transpired in this great nation of ours of late, and I'm going to use some space here to clear my head.


Supreme Court Ruling On The ACA

The affordable care act, which many refer to as "Obamacare", has been a huge political football.  It was (I believe) a well-intentioned law, but nevertheless one which was pretty badly flawed.  I think it will be a long time before we can assess the overall level of benefit it provides or the damage it does.  And I suspect we will continue to see court challenges to parts of the law which some folks find objectionable, so the final form has yet to take shape. 

Recently the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) heard a challenge to a provision that allows the federal government to provide subsidies to people who buy insurance on the exchanges that have been set up.  A poorly worded provision of the law literally refers to exchanges set up by the states, which led to a suit claiming that this means the federal government isn't allowed to give subsidies to people who buy insurance on exchanges set up by the federal government, which is what we get in states that refuse to set up their own exchanges. 

This week the court ruled that the federal government can give those subsidies.  Many on the right have howled about this - that in making this ruling, SCOTUS has "rewritten" the law.  Frankly, I think this is a misunderstanding about how SCOTUS works.  In cases like these, their goal is generally to try to understand what the authors of a law meant or intended.  The court decided, rightly in my view, that there is no way the authors of the law intended to withhold subsidies from people forced to buy insurance on federal exchanges just because their states didn't set up their own.


Flying the Confederate Flag

The Confederate Flag is a symbol which means different things to different people.  It's a gross understatement to point out that the mixture of emotions it evokes is complex; for people like me, liberal southerners, it's really complex.  For some the flag is a symbol of a time when our country's laws allowed one race of people to own people of another race, when the southern states tried to leave the Union specifically to preserve that right, and of more than a century since that war in which racism has remained alive, like Voldemort, half-dead but never quite killed off.  For others, it is a symbol of a time when their ancestors took up arms and risked life and limb to defend their homes from an invading army, and acquitted themselves honorably in battle.  And frankly, for some, it's simply a symbol of a mysterious attribute we might call "southern pride."

Over the last week in the wake of a terrible mass shooting in which a young white man brutally murdered a number of black churchgoers, there has been an intense discussion concerning the meaning of the flag (which is featured prominently in pictures of this young man), and concerning whether and when it is appropriate to display it.

I believe in free speech, and therefore believe that for individual citizens, there is no question but that they have the right to fly the flag in their yards, wear clothing using the flag, put bumper stickers on their cars and trucks, etc.  However when it comes to government institutions, be they state, county or municipal, I believe strongly that it is wrong for them to fly it.  There are two reasons for this.  First, the flag is also a symbol of rebellion against the Union, and any state or other government flying the flag is making a statement glorifying rebellion against the U.S.A.  The fact that a number of southern states have done and continue to do so is almost incomprehensible to me, especially given the extreme level of patriotic fervor felt by nearly all southerners.  Second, these governments are charged with the representation of ALL of their constituents, of all races and all ancestries, and to fly this flag is a direct insult to vast numbers of their citizens.  I have no desire to see the flying of the flag made illegal for individual citizens, frankly do not think it should be a legal matter for the states or municipalities either - just that those government institutions should make the clear and rational choice not to do so.


Supreme Court Ruling on Gay Marriage

This week the Supreme Court ruled that the individual states may not prohibit gay and lesbian marriages.  There is much left to happen here; there will be challenges and court battles.   But make no mistake, I have expected this.  I believe that it is inevitable that we will have marriage equality in the U.S.A.  This is where the currents are carrying us, and while some may swim against the river for a while, eventually it carries us all along.

The trend over more than a decade has been towards a growing percentage of the American public in favor of legalized gay marriage.  For the past year most polls have put this number at around 60%.  That number is interesting.  Some folks who are unhappy with the SCOTUS ruling this week feel that the court abridged the natural democratic process that should have been allowed to play out. What I think it interesting is that at least in the Senate, 60% is what we think of as a "supermajority".  Assuming the trend continues, Americans would almost certainly have elected an increasing number of Senators and Representatives who would have supported gay marriage, and congressional action would have occurred at some point.  It would have taken years longer of course, but this is what I meant by seeing this as a sort of inexorable current.

More to the immediate point, in my view there was very good reason for the court to make this ruling now, rather than allowing the country to go through the longer process.  Over the last few years, either by direct popular vote or due to legal action, well over half of the states were allowing gay marriage.  A situation in which a couple can marry in one state, and then find their marriage to be held illegal or invalid in another, results in a sort of chaos which is not good for anyone.  It's easy to say things like "Well, they should just choose to live in a state where their marriage is welcome."  But this ignores the fact that the choices we make about where to live are driven by forces not always under our control.  What happens to the gay couple when one partner needs to live in a particular state for a job?  What happens when they need to move closer to family, perhaps to care for an elderly parent?  The simple fact is that some kinds of legal arrangements need to be accepted by all states in order for the nation and her citizens to function.

Finally, let me just say this - my own feelings about homosexuality were resolved long ago when I realized one simple fact - it's not a choice.  Ethical and moral questions were simply made irrelevant by that one thing.  In this country we can and do make legal distinctions about the choices people make, but we do not make legal distinctions about who people are.  Saying that a person must "choose between who to love and where to live" makes no sense once we accept that people do not choose who to love.  Until now, the only choice for gays and lesbians has been whether to live a closeted existence, denying the reality of who they are in exchange for the convenience of benefits, or to live openly and be punished by a country with a confusing and constantly changing set of laws.

The SCOTUS ruling doesn't set everything right, not by a long shot - but it clearly sets forth the path we are going to follow.  For my gay and lesbian friends, I'm happy for you.  For the rest of us, and especially the people I know who are wondering whether the country is now on the verge of some sort of moral collapse - I say, "We're going to be just fine, like we always have."

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