Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Prime Time Persecution

cross-posted from Dagblog

Anyone on television talking about how they're being persecuted for their religion is not being persecuted. How do I know this?

Because they are on television.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Birth Control Makes Catholicism Work

cross-posted from Dagblog

My brilliant co-bloggers Ramona and Destor have been especially brilliant this week on the Catholic bishops' outrage at having to pay for full employee health insurance. Destor is so smart about the church and state principles involved, and Ramona so good on the women's-health issues, that I have nothing left to add but my own personal experience. I am a former employee of the Catholic Church. I used to have a health-insurance card with the Archdiocese of Boston's seal printed on it. That wasn't an experience of religious liberty. That was an employer exercising its muscle to impose on employees' religious consciences. And it involved the hypocritical pretense that the Archdiocese and its good works did not fundamentally depend on careful family planning by its employees, as every American diocese did and does.

I was in no personal need of the contraceptive pills that my health card wouldn't get me, because I was a dude and because I had a romantic life which rendered family planning moot. But one of my co-workers explained what our health-insurance card meant for her. Prescriptions for contraceptives weren't covered, and had to be paid for out-of-pocket at the exorbitant rate reserved for the uninsured. And any doctor's appointment where contraceptives were discussed or prescribed was also not covered, even if the appointment was primarily to treat something else. (And obviously, it didn't matter why contraceptives were being prescribed. If, like many women, my co-worker needed the pill for medical reasons unrelated to family planning, then she would simply have an uninsured medical problem.) That isn't just refusing to be "forced to buy contraceptives." That is an employer using its muscle to put obstacles in its employees' way, to press its own agenda upon employees no matter their own religious beliefs. In this case, my Jewish co-worker had her employer's religious convictions forced upon her. That is not freedom of conscience.

This is what "freedom of religion" has come to mean to today's religious right: the privilege to push your religion on others, and to play the victim when your bullying is interrupted. The official leadership of the Catholic Church has utterly failed to convince even its own followers of its position on contraception: 
in recent polls, about 95 percent of Catholics have said they use contraceptives, and 89 percent say the decision to use them should be theirs, not the church’s,
and another recent poll shows Catholics favoring the Obama administration's ruling by a 58-37 margin. So the "religious principle" being discussed here is a recent teaching embraced mainly by the Church's hierarchy, but not actually part of most believers' practice of the faith. But having failed to persuade rank-and-file Catholics of the Church's novel and ill-thought-out position, the leader of my Archdiocese, Bernard Cardinal Law, resorted to bullying employees with his economic power, interfering with their medical decisions because he was The Boss.

The claim that Cardinal Law's conscience would have been violated if the organization he led had been "forced to buy contraceptives" is nonsense. The Church does not buy contraceptives, penicillin, X-rays, or any other medical good. It buys a premium for a health plan for its employees, and that plan pays for medical goods and services. But isn't that just buying contraceptives with the Cardinal's money? No. Because the premium on my health plan was not the Cardinal's money, even if his little stamp was on the card. It was my money. It was part of my pay. I had earned it, through the work specified in my contract, and what I did with the benefits I was owed was no more the Cardinal's business than what I did with my paycheck. Employees' medical decisions and religious beliefs are their own. (If I bought a hamburger on Good Friday, I wasn't forcing the Cardinal to "buy meat" against his religious beliefs. Once someone pays you, the money is yours.)  Even if the employer pays the insurer directly, that doesn't entitle it to dictate the way medical insurance was used. If it did, the Christian Science Monitor couldn't be required to provide health insurance at all.

And let me be very blunt here. Almost all of the employees covered by the new ruling are working in the non-profit sector at non-profit salaries. They are teachers, doctors, nurses, and social workers in the Catholic Church's schools, hospitals, charities, and colleges. They are not paid unfairly, but the Church does not pay them, and could not afford to pay them, well enough that they don't need to worry about when and how they start their families. The first year I worked for the Boston Church, I was paid the princely sum of fifteen thousand dollars plus health insurance. My co-workers who had more experience and credentials than I did were paid better than that, at least, but they were still paid much less than people in similar jobs outside the Church. I didn't think my salary was unfair, considering the original skill level I brought with me, and I was happy to have the opportunity to do the work I was doing and to get better at it. But that decision was only possible for me because I was not going to be starting a family. I could not have taken that job if I were responsible for a child. If I'd had a child on the way, I would have had to look for other work. And the idea that I would "let God decide" when children would come, and in what numbers, while I was working for a salary that wouldn't cover day care, is the height of irresponsibility. Catholic schools and Catholic charities and Catholic hospitals are only economically possible because of contraception. Without family planning, they would have to close.

The sisters and brothers who once staffed those institutions no longer exist in anything close to the numbers needed to keep them open. You cannot run a school or hospital with American nuns any more, because there aren't any. They have been replaced by lay employees who have not taken vows of poverty, and so need to be paid. The schools and hospitals stay open because those lay workers are willing to work for below-market wages. But since those educated below-market-wage professionals have also not taken vows of chastity, they have to make decisions about starting families, and about the size of their families. They cannot afford to let children come on their own schedule, in whatever numbers. They have to make the same decisions that most middle-class families make about when they can afford to have a baby, except they have to make them even more carefully. If everyone who worked for the Catholic Church in this country had the large, unplanned families the Church recommends, then the schools and hospitals and charities would not be able to pay the parents well enough to support their children. Those schools and hospitals would either go broke or lose most of their workers to more profitable jobs. This is the reality underlying the Church's good works.

It isn't wrong; those schools and charities and hospitals need to be low-cost to serve the Church's mission. I've never been sorry I worked for them, or served the people I served while I was on the Church's payroll. But to pay people a wage which will not allow them to start a family and then make them go into their underpaid pockets for the birth-control pills that allow them to keep working for you is wrong. It is unworthy of any of the values the Church stands for. And making a grand pious show of it only makes the bishops' behavior more sinful.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

The GOP's Drunk-Dad Primary

cross-posted from Dagblog

There's been a lot of punditty chatter about what the Romney vs. Gingrich struggles means: insiders vs. outsiders, establishment vs. Tea Party, elite vs. non-elite, whatever. But listening to that clip of Gingrich attacking John King, listening the open, undiluted pleasure that Gingrich takes in his own rage, made it clear to me what this is really about. The Republican primary voters are electing their political family a new Drunk Dad. And they want to be sure they get the right kind.

Of course, none of the Republican contenders are alcoholics. (Romney abstains from alcohol completely.) They're not literal drunks. But the Republican Party is now like a family headed by an alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional parent. There are huge problems that no one can bring themselves to face. And although the parent figure actively prevents the real problems from getting better, they also lead the family in the crucial effort to deny those problems. The Drunk Dad sets the tone and direction for family's most important shared effort: covering over the fact that dad's a drunk.

Make no mistake: the Republican Party's current approach to this nation's problems is stone-cold denial. This is true whether they end up nominating Romney, Gingrich, Ron Paul or the Man in the Moon. And in policy terms, the differences between Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, Perry, etc., are trivial. The two Republican plans for dealing with America's serious economic problems are to stick with the policies that created the problems or to make them worse.  Republican energy policy is to drill for more domestic oil, ignoring the basic fact that the don't have even half as much oil as we use, and to cut research on renewable energy so that when the oil does run out we won't have any other options. Republican military policy is Not To Do Things Like Obama Does, meaning effectively and with minimal American casualties, but to go back to the way George W. Bush did it, meaning colossal failed military adventures that leave the country weaker. The only question is whether to try to get back into the quicksand of Iraq, or to stake out a new quagmire in Iran, or both. In every case, for every Republican candidate, the plan is to do things more like George W. Bush, although no one says that because doing things that way was a colossal failure.

And that's the Republican plan in a nutshell: to go back to the Bush Era while simultaneously disowning it because every knows Bush was a big failure. Doing that takes mighty acts of denial. The leader of their party needs to be the Denier in Chief, and lead the faithful through the minefield of cognitive dissonance to the Promised Land, where you do everything the way you always do but everything is somehow better. This kind of profound group self-deception requires a dysfunctional father figure for the faithful to believe in, someone to be the voice of rationalization and convenient self-delusion: a Drunk Dad.

Romney is like the Nice Drunk Dad, the kind that holds his liquor well and speaks politely and can only be recognized as an alcoholic if you know him. Generally, this kind of Drunk Dad seems like the best of the bad deals: he looks basically respectable, he doesn't fly into drunken rages, and he can even find socially-acceptable excuses for all the drinking, so that to casual visitors he just seems to be enjoying a few social cocktails instead of ruthlessly pickling his own brain. When the Nice Drunk Dad lies to you he sounds all calm and easy-going and sincere. He's actually excellent at selling the lie, even when circumstances make it implausible. He'll look you right in the eye and tell you everything's going to be better, and the family's just had a bit of inexplicable bad luck, and he's starting tomorrow he's going to turn over a new leaf because you kids are the most important thing in his life. And it all sounds really believable when he says it, especially the first time. He might, out of prevaricator's necessity, have to throw some personal slanders in with his lies, blaming the supervisor who fired him or the electric company that keeps "losing his checks," but that's not his strong suit, and even then he often affects a kind of more-in-sorrow-than-anger vibe about it.

Gingrich, however, is like the Angry Drunk Dad, who powers his denial with deep, quick-rising rage. The Angry Drunk Dad will often insult you and hurt your feelings, but he has an easy explanation for why things keep going wrong for the family: those no-good bastards are out to get him. He's surrounded by enemies wherever he goes, enemies who steal his job or cut off his electricity, and the family's task is to make common cause against those enemies. The enemies, of course, are out to get him because he's better then they are, because he's a bigger person and better at things and because he's got principles and they can't deal with that. And you can trust the Angry Drunk Dad not to back down. Whenever he feels wronged, which is nearly always, he goes on the attack: after all, those bastards have it coming.

(Rick Santorum, of course, is the Magical Thinking Drunk Dad, who tries basically the same bullshit on you that he used when you were three years old. And Ron Paul isn't so much a Drunk Dad as a Crank Uncle, who tells quirkily entertaining stories, warns you at length about the dangers of fluoridation and Freemasonry, and spends most of his time in the basement working on his perpetual-motion machine.)

On the face of it, the Nice Drunk Dad seems like the obvious go-to choice; for those of us who grew up with functional parents, the obvious move is to pick the one who seems closer to functional. That is basically the rationale for the Romney candidacy: he's less obviously embarrassing, and he looks like someone who could hold onto a job. But this turns out to be a mistake. The Nice Drunk Dad is still a drunk. There's no real benefit to the fact that he looks functional, and the fact that he looks so much like better dads whose families live better, more stable lives only drives home the fact that your family doesn't get to live like that. Candidate Romney doesn't have any actual programs to sell in the general election. He might not embarrass himself right out of the gate by talking about poor people on food stamps or raving about building a moon base, but anyone who's around him for longer than it takes to have two drinks is still going to figure out that he's got nothing. And President Romney has no plan to stop things in this country from going further and further into hell. If elected, he's just going to have a series of heart-to-heart talks with us about how things aren't really as bad as they seem and everything will get better, because he has our best interests at heart. Meanwhile, things are going to get worse and worse.

It's those heart-to-heart talks that are excruciating, and make the Nice Drunk Dad much worse, in lots of ways, than the Angry Drunk Dad. All he's got is bullshit, after all, and once you've heard the same bullshit a few times the fact that he sounds like he believes it doesn't make it better. In fact, it makes it worse. And you're forced to pretend that you don't see through him. It's terrible. The Angry Drunk Dad, on the other hand, doesn't ask you to believe his lies. He commands you to believe him, and attacks you the instant your faith wavers. You're not allowed to think for yourself, which is a relief; it keeps you from being able to notice how bad everything is. And the Angry Drunk Dad's talent for hate, his furious scapegoating and blame-shifting, not only helps you participate in the denial but actually gives you an outlet for all the hurt and rage and shame that comes from being in such a messed-up family. The Angry Drunk Dad has a convenient, consistent explanation for every setback, an explanation that helps you get through the day, and he offers you a place to unload all those terrible feelings you're carrying around, onto those convenient enemies. All these things that are going wrong aren't Dad's fault! ACORN did it! Saul Alinsky! Black people on food stamps! The liberal media!

Sure, your objective reality will be at least as bad as it would be with the Nice Drunk Dad, but face it: your objective reality was going to suck anyway. Things won't get better in the real world until/unless you break away from the family (the party) completely and start over. If you're not willing or able to do that, and lots of Republican primary voters aren't, the only question is how well you can keep your awareness of the ugly realities at bay. And at that game, the aggressively anti-reality Angry Drunk Dad beats the genteel, reasonable-sounding Nice Drunk Dad hands down. The Angry Drunk Dad helps you seal off the unpleasant truths that are always seeping through the Nice Drunk Dad's jive. And he gives you something to do when those truths unexpectedly confront you: get angry. In the Nice-Dad system of denial, the truth is something uncomfortable and embarrassing. In the Angry-Dad system, the truth is an enemy to be destroyed. It's not healthier than the Nice-Dad system, but it's a lot more emotionally satisfying. And it's what Newt Gingrich has to offer the voters.