Stan’ up then

I heard this morning of the sad death of Peter Ustinov. For those who don’t know him, he was as close to a renaissance man as we’ve had since the renaissance. In his career he won 2 Oscars, a Grammy, 3 Emmys, was knighted, wrote plays and books, directed plays, films and operas, and was a UN goodwill ambassador for over 30 years. I’ve seen him perform a couple of ‘Evening with’ performances on TV, where as well as being extremely funny he was clearly an order of magnitude smarter and more rounded than you or I. A real shame.

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Hidden Trap

A bill passed yesterday makes it a separate crime to harm an unborn child during a federal crime. There is a lot of discussion about this being the thin end of an anti-abortion wedge, with valid arguments on both sides. There is also discussion about this being a reasonable way to punish a person who commits such a crime, which I think is a very valid argument (it may seem a little harsh if the woman shows no signs of being pregnant, but then it’s only an issue if you’re going to hurt a woman anyway, so bad luck).

The final argument that has been put forward (heard on the radio, so don’t have a link) is that it will further serve to discourage people from harming others. If people thought logically about the pros and cons before killing someone, at least half of all murders wouldn’t happen (how about that for a sweeping statement?) People who commit murder generally don’t fully think things through, so adding in the invisible risk of being charged for two capital crimes instead of one will have only the most marginal of effects – if they really believed they were going to be caught they wouldn’t do it anyway, would they? To suggest otherwise is either playing to the grandstands, or troublingly naive.

An interesting corollary to this; it is now possible to be sentenced to death for killing someone whose existence it was physically impossible for you to know of, or even reasonably suspect. Odd.

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One Nation

Back to the “under God” discussions, though briefly. Solicitor General Theodore Olson said during the Supreme Court proceedings that “The Pledge is not a religious invocation, not a prayer”. Now I’ll admit that I’m not a scholar of matters theological, but the phrase in question is “under God”; I invite anyone to tell me what is more relilgious than God, and hence how something that invokes God (as opposed to ‘god’) can not be a prayer.

An interesting account of the proceedings can be found here. And I should state that I have no problem with the country deciding that the establishment clause (that bars government from getting involved in religion) is not what they want, removing it from the constitution, and pledging “under God” every day. I don’t think it’s a good idea, but this is a democracy, and if that’s what the demos want they should get it. But until then this is all so staggeringly unconstitutional that I’m amazed it’s even in question.

Things that just are

Following up on an earlier comment from Nick, who suggested that “the definition of marriage should be removed entirely from any legal documents in any laws.” This is an idea that seems rather appealing to me, though with some hesitation that may take us on an interesting detour.

Let’s ignore for a moment what government is, and look instead at what we might like it to be. Clearly there are dozens of different issues we could argue about here, but I’m particularly interested in how decisions should be classified. Let’s say that government faces two kinds of issues; things that can be managed, and things that just are. Any issue can then be placed in to one of these two camps:

The sky is blue” – thing that just is
Homelessness” – thing that can be managed
Cheese” – thing that just is
Global Thermonuclear War” – thing that can be managed

See how easy that was? It seems fairly obvious, given this distinction, that government should deal with ‘things that can be managed’, and leave ‘things that just are’ alone. The problem with the current treatment of gay marriage (or rather, one of the problems) is that those involved portray marriage as something that just is, but want to legislate it as a thing that can be managed.

Putting aside their religious arguments for a moment (because that’s not what government is supposed to be about), proponents state that marriage is one of our most enduring and fundamental institutions. If that is the case then it’s ‘a thing that just is’, and shouldn’t be legislated on. This is in part the point that Nick makes. Not legislating in this area doesn’t mean the status quo, it means removing the 1,138 different benefits and protections that the government gives to married couples (no, that number isn’t made up, click here if you’re a Time subscriber for more info). We don’t provide benefits for the enduring union between a man and his dog, or a woman and her shoes, because those are ‘things that just are’. If marriage ‘just is’, then we should leave it alone.

That’s a very valid view (see this article from 7 years ago for more), but I actually prefer the alternative, which is that marriage is something that can be managed. But that alone isn’t enough to make it a thing that should be managed. For that, we need to show that there is a public interest to be served by intervening. For example, government could regulate the colour of your carpet, but it doesn’t because there isn’t a public interest inherent in your choice of floor covering. On the other hand, it does regulate the dyes used to create that colour, to prevent little Timmy from chewing on some unsavoury chemicals; a public interest served.

So to legislate marriage, we need to show why marriage is a matter of public interest. I don’t think that’s difficult to do in broad terms; children raised in a (happy) marriage tend to be more balanced, marriage increases longevity, etc. But we need to be more specific about these benefits. Are children raised in a (happy) marriage more balanced because of the stability that marriage provides, or because of the extra stuff 1,138 state benefits buys them? And by extension, are there forms of marriage (such as gay marriage) that should be excluded because they don’t bring such benefits. I suspect that it is possible to demonstrate that, in general, two parents are better than one regardless of the financial rewards of being married, but I’m struggling to understand how those two parents being of the same gender would nullify such benefits (let alone how it would destabilize society as a whole).

Once we are able to demonstrate that marriage is a benefit to society, and that this benefit is increased by providing 1,138 incentives, we should whip out the legislative pen with gusto, But until that point, trying to block some types of marriage because “we don’t do that” is both morally, and logically, wrong.

One Nation Under

I watched a program on C-SPAN. I assume their sophisticated tracking systems showed a 20% spike in viewership when I tuned in late. The excellent program was about a legal challenge making its way to the Supreme Court this week. At issue is the contention that the inclusion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Michael Newdow has brought suit, claiming that the use of those two words constitutes an endorsement of religion, which is something the government is prevented from doing by the first amendment.

There’s a lot I could write about this, and no doubt in time I will. For now I wanted to pass on an interesting point that Mr Newdow made in the C-SPAN debate. His ‘opponent’, Steven Aden, made what I understand is a standard comment on this issue when he said that the Founding Father’s believed that human rights derived from God, and that one of those rights is the right to believe (or not) in whatever you want. Keeping “under God” in the pledge merely acknowledges this reality (I may not be presenting this argument well because I don’t believe it, and for that matter barely understand it).

Newdow’s response relied heavily on the word ‘bizarre’, but his point was, for me, excellent. I don’t believe in God. But God granted me the right to not believe in him. But I really don’t believe in him, as in I don’t think he exists. So I only have the right to believe that God does not exist because the thing that doesn’t exist granted me that right? Presumably if He doesn’t exist then I don’t have the right not to believe in Him, but then I don’t need that right, because he doesn’t exist.

I hoped to be able to make that point better, but perhaps my confusion is the best explanation; it literally makes no sense. And for some people with strong ‘non-beliefs’ it not only makes no sense, it’s actually offensive.