Not Just Tennessee

Clay Risen makes a point about health care in Tennessee that goes just as well for Rhode Island:

But focusing on Bredesen solely as a slash-and-burn free-marketeer misses the real nature of Tennessee politics and, I think, a strong argument for a national health care system. Tennessee had a great, if bloated, system in need of reform, not gutting. But the sharp rightward turn in state political sentiment in the 1990s–a turn that, amazingly, continues to gain speed today–means that any effort to raise revenue is a non-starter, and that the only acceptable reform is to eviscerate the system. It’s a case in point for the downside to state-level experimentation, and evidence that, at least in conservative states, voters are willing to move backwards, not forwards. That’s no way to build a better health-care system.

Not Just Tennessee

Biggest Little

I didn’t have an accurate perception of how Rhode Island stacks up against other states, and this report is really interesting. We have relatively high unemployment, but relatively low uninsurance. I imagine our high ranking on NCLB standards could be used to justify our relatively high per-student spending. And our little state is fairly green, ranking very near the bottom in CO2 emissions (in absolute and per capita terms).

Thanks to Dan for the link!

Biggest Little

Not All Discrimination Is Equal

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… The Ostensible Champion of Liberty and Tolerance! Or at least that’s what fellow Rhode Islander Justin Katz has dubbed me in his gracious response to some comments I left over at Anchor Rising. Before I have myself fitted for the cape and tights, it seems right and proper to address the challenges Justin has laid down in his post.

I’m struck, first of all, by Justin’s framing of the subject of our conversation as the “inevitable collision of the gay rights movement with certain fundamental freedoms, such as that of religion.” It’s hard for me to see how seeking to expand the civil rights of gay Americans impinges the religious freedoms of other Americans (or how the right to marry isn’t as fundamental as freedom of religion), but his lengthy response urges me to try.

Firstly, I must correct a seeming misapprehension. Justin says:

For me to have a lack of sympathy for those whose conclusions I oppose would require me to believe that they are all lying about their motives and are, in fact, consciously striving for the downfall of our society. It is disheartening to think that the courteous and discoursive [sic] MRH might believe something equivalent from the other side.

Flattery will get you everywhere, you handsome and articulate fellow! Of course, there’s no need to ascribe to me such a negative view of opponents of same-sex marriage, just as there’s no need to assume that supporters of same-sex marriage believe that gay people and their supporters want to bring about the downfall of society. We can certainly disagree – and even disagree without sympathy — without believing that the other’s motivations are so base. Take heart, Justin, that my courtesy does not merely cover disdain.

Our mutual good intentions thus assured, let us move to the actual matter at hand.

I view the denial of the right of same-sex couples to marry as a form of discrimination. And yet, if that right were granted, might there not be a new “reverse” discrimination against those who oppose it? Here’s Justin:

I offer you the not-so-hypothetical examples of a Christian organization that places adoptive children only with married couples and the business that only prints invitations for marriage ceremonies. In either case, with the civil-rights argument, that religion or that business has a definition of marriage — one that relates directly to their beliefs about the relationships that they are encouraging — that would, overnight, be invidious discrimination.

I’ll grant that, in a world where same-sex marriage is legal and discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal, the invitation company might not be free to refuse to print invitations to same-sex marriages. Let’s also grant that, if they take public funds, the Christian agency might not be free to decline to place children into households where both parents are of the same sex. Their definitions of marriage would suddenly come into conflict with that of the state and, indeed, they would be guilty of legal discrimination.

Should our sympathy for this printing company and this adoption agency weigh more or less heavily than our sympathy for a gay couple that wants to marry? My initial answer was that, of course, we feel more for the latter, because I tend to sympathize with victims of discrimination, not agents of discrimination. Justin’s riposte was as follows:

My response to the expression of sympathy for “the victims of discrimination,” rather than “agents of discrimination,” is to wonder whether Matt’s sympathies are applied on the basis of individual cases or he’s speaking of victims and agents as class distinctions. If the former, one would expect his sympathies to cycle: The Catholics who are rebuffed for discriminating against homosexuals for purposes of adoption (to keep with the prior example) are, in turn, being discriminated against by the government in relation to the their ability to take private initiative in keeping with their beliefs about the most beneficial homes for children. If the latter, the application of sympathy — presumptuous in its assignment of roles — amounts to declaring a moral preference for homosexuals versus traditional Christians.

My sympathies apply to victims of discrimination both as individuals and as a class. Let’s address the challenge to the latter lemma first. In the spirit of cordiality and charity, I’ll interpret this as a rhetorical maneuver rather than as a genuine claim, but will respond with a rhetorical maneuver of my own: does sympathizing with the victims of racial discrimination, as a class, amount to a moral preference for blacks over whites? Of course, it does not. Rather, it amounts to a moral preference for equality and justice over inequality and injustice.

In the case of individual victims of discrimination, would my sympathies cycle, as Justin suggests, to Christians who are unable to deny service to homosexuals? I suspect it would not, because I don’t consider the imposition of equality to be discrimination. Was the decision in Brown v. Board of Education discrimination against segregationists? Surely not. Of course, the two cases are not entirely parallel. The distinguishing factor seems to be that the objections are motivated by religion rather than some other value system. I’m not sure that this should make a difference. Justin seems to think it does, however, and maybe some of you do as well, so let’s consider it so and proceed.

We are confronted with a choice, then. We either discriminate against same-sex couples by denying them the right to marry, or we discriminate against “traditional Christians” by forcing them to recognize same-sex marriages. Are we at an impasse? Faced with discrimination on either side, are we unable to judge between them? Of course not. Not all instances of discrimination are equal, and there is no moral obligation to tolerate intolerance. We must have a rubric to decide which is worse, and mine works by evaluating the harm done to the class or individual discriminated against. It seems clear enough to me that more harm is done by denying same-sex couples the right to marry than by granting it.

Justin said something else very interesting:

It oughtn’t take but so much intellectual distance to realize that the struggle isn’t between religious dogma and objective civil rights, but between two competing ideological worldviews with different understandings of what marriage, in its essence, is.

I don’t agree, unsurprisingly. I think extending marriage rights to same-sex couples is a simple question of civil rights. But Justin is right that there are competing ideas of what marriage is. And here is where we stop dancing around the real point. We’re arguing a point of public policy. We know what the traditional religious view of same-sex marriage is, but if we are to make it the law, we need another basis. Our secular democracy demands extra-Biblical justification for its law-making. So what is the secular, social argument against same-sex marriage?

Unfortunately, it’s not a very good one. Justin bases his opposition to same-sex marriage on:

… the utility of marriage to bind the genders in biologically affirmed union and to tie generations in an historical thread of ancestry and progeny, often with religious underpinnings. If this is the vision of marriage that one holds, then homosexual relationships, whether they inspire approval or disapprobation, are simply not marriage, and to redefine marriage to include them would inevitably erode the institution’s utility.

As loath as I am, in general, to argue from marginal cases, surely defining marriage as a procreative pair cannot be sustained in the face of some simple counter-examples. Can a heterosexual couple who are (independently or mutually) infertile be said to be truly married under this definition? What about a married couple that abstains from sex? And do we want the state to invalidate marriages that do not produce progeny, or require fertility and genetic testing before validating a marriage certificate? Do we want the state to compel married couples to attempt to conceive? No, we do not.

The other side will counter, lamely I think, that it is not actual fertility, but rather some kind of potential, Platonic fertility that matters: a marriage must include male and female genitalia, whether they are joined in sexual congress or not. This is, of course, absurd.

How, practically, would redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships “erode the institution’s utility?” This is the question that has never been answered to my satisfaction. Marriage, as Justin points out, has many benefits to society. These include the strengthening of familial and societal ties, the establishment of persistent kin groups and affinities, and the financial stability of combining households, benefits, and assets. Where, in any of this, should gender matter? Is there a fear that, should the option of same-sex marriage become available, men and women that would otherwise marry each other and produce offspring will be tempted to instead marry members of the same sex? If this is Justin’s argument, I think he drastically overestimates the number of closeted homosexuals in our society.

Besides, any of the arguments that society depends on “traditional marriage” for its procreative potential apply just as well to same-sex marriage as they do to homosexuality simpliciter. Homosexuals are, by and large, going to refrain from marrying members of the opposite sex and reproducing with them whether same-sex marriage is legal or not. Do opponents of same-sex marriage also want to outlaw homosexual behavior? Do they want to compel heterosexual behavior?

Advocates of the right to same-sex marriage draw a clear distinction between religious marriage – marriage as defined to any particular religious group that offers it as a rite – and civil marriage – marriage as defined by the regulations and structures of legal statute. I have never seen an argument against same-sex marriage that was not grounded in religious belief. I believe strongly that any religious person should be free to decline to officiate at, attend, or acknowledge any marriage that offends his or her beliefs. I believe just as strongly that he or she should not have the right to enshrine those beliefs in law.

Not All Discrimination Is Equal

Unlikely Words’ First Link Post!

Geek alert. I love my RSS feeds. Every blog needs a linky post and I’ve been charged with developing one for Unlikely Words. I promise the links contained in the semi-regular link posts were at one time interesting to me (and might be interesting to you) and I promise to post the link posts semi-regularly. (The previous sentence has already proven false as this post was started 3 weeks ago and I already have enough tabs for another post, let alone most of this stuff being outdated). Hopefully, most of these links will come from places other than Lifehacker, Boing Boing, and Kottke. I can’t promse that, but maybe I can take solace in the idea that I’ll read overpublishing blogs so you don’t have to.

  • I know Unlikely Words uses Word Press. But I started AABA on Blogger and Blog This makes creating linky posts very easy. Does Word Press have this?
  • I hate 90% of the posts from Xeni on Boing Boing. She’s recently become a vegan and is fighting (I’d volunteer successfully) her desire to preach. This article is from Rolling Stone and talks about how nasty pig farms are. The excerpts were riveting. (Boing Boing)
  • Rich people can do what they want with their money, but they should be helping out more. Even if Oprah’s school is over the top, at least she’s trying to make a difference. The counter to this argument is that she could have a bigger impact spending her money more wisely. (AMERICAblog)
  • The Gates Foundations invests in companies that cause problems for some of the people they are trying to help. When the CEOs of Halliburton, Exxon, and Chevron give away giant percentages of their wealth to foundations that strive to make change in the world and those foundations don’t hold questionable financial positions, this story will OUTRAGE me a lot more. (I can’t remember.)
  • I normally wouldn’t post a link about a guy asking for donations for a frivolous cause. But this guy got a bum X-Box and then had a hard time with the Customer Service. His goal now is to buy the biggest box he can afford to send his X-Box back for repair. This type of consumer ingenuity fills me with glee. (Consumerist)
  • I don’t really go see live music anymore, but maybe I’ll start again. iConcertCal just might be the coolest iTunes add-on since… well, forever. Once a week, iConcertCal searchs your library and finds concerts in your area. (Lifehacker)
  • Companies can’t keep paying skyrocketing health costs for long. Eventually, they’ll just get their own docters. Brilliant. (Marginal Revolution)
  • If you’re afraid of giant rabbits, think you might be, or don’t want to read about how they might get used to end North Korea’s hunger problems, don’t click on this link. (Boing Boing)
  • I aspire to be a better photographer. If I read this link, I might have a chance. (I can’t remember.)
  • I asked Matthew to change Unlikely Words a bit so that I could better document my life. I have deep desires to document my life more fully. Feltron’s Annual Report is an inspiration to me. (Kottke.)
  • These food rule models might be good for you if you want to become a more efficient food orderer. (Marginal Revolution)
  • Ahhh, Rhode Island. (Boing Boing)
  • This site allows me to create a map of all the states I’ve visited. Be careful, because I just might. You can also do countries as well, but that was less interesting for me. (Marginal Revolution)
  • I wanted to read this article on the media documentation of a few New Yorkers, but I’m not as interested anymore. I might get back to it some day. (Kottke.)
  • If we start needing to make energy out of corn will there be less corn in everyday food? Will that make us skinnier? (Freakonomics)
  • The TSA has guidelines to help its staff ensure that helper monkeys are not carrying bombs. They let helper monkeys fly on planes? (Boing Boing)
  • I don’t have enough pictures in Flikr for this to work well for me, but Matthew probably does. It was very slow, but very easy. (Lifehacker)
  • Help charities without donating money. You know you want to. (Lifehacker)
  • If you heard about this on NPR’s This American Life a couple weeks ago, now you can watch it on Youtube. A guy shoots the same movie 3 times with 3 different actors in the early 80’s. Incidentally, each of the 3 became stars. (Boing Boing)
  • This article seems interesting, but I haven’t read it yet. Vanity Fair always seems to have long articles I want to read, but for which I don’t make the time. That says something about either me or Vanity Fair.
Unlikely Words’ First Link Post!


A few weekends ago, we drove down to New Jersey to visit my new baby cousin. Actually, this is my cousin’s child (his first), so I’m pretty sure that makes baby A my first cousin, once removed. (I had to ask my wife to explain the different kinds of cousins again; she’s a real hit at cocktail parties.)

It’s a long drive to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, from Providence, Rhode Island. Now, I don’t really dislike driving all that much. If I have an entertaining driving companion, or there’s something good on the radio, or my iPod is charged, I’ll drive just about any distance happily. This is a good thing since my new job includes a commute of at least an hour each way. The problem is that it’s one of those drives where the theoretical commute time is low enough that I’m never satisfied with my actual drive time. Google Maps says it’s 45 minutes, and I’ve never made it in less than an hour.

Maybe it was this pent up frustration that led to the following exchange, somewhere between interchanges 8 and 7 on the New Jersey Turnpike. As we inched forward in the nearly unmoving traffic, my wife sighed but said bracingly, “Well, we should be there in about an hour.”

“Could be longer,” I snapped.

“Could be longer”? Why would I say that? Was I trying to challenge the accuracy of her statement? Did I interpret her reassuring comment as a scientific hypothesis, and was I offended that it was untested? Why did I find her resigned optimism so infuriating?

I think it was this: my personal satisfaction with a drive isn’t determined my how long the drive is, but rather it is inversely proportional to the amount of time I spend in first gear. If we’d been an hour late but with nothing but open highway before us, I would have responded, “An hour? Pshaw!” and floored it. I would much rather drive for an hour and half at highway speeds than for an hour in a traffic jam.

Isn’t that stupid? At least it explains why I got snippy on the turnpike: we’d just missed our best chance to get off the highway and find a slower but less busy route. If I have one complaint about the New Jersey Turnpike, it would be that the exits are so far apart that once you miss one, you are pretty thoroughly screwed. Nonetheless, we made it to Cherry Hill with our marriage intact, to (I presume) the dismay of my uncle.

My uncle P— does not approve of my relationship with R—. It’s not that he – I don’t know – thinks she’s not good enough for me, or doesn’t like her in some way. I’d guess that he doesn’t even have an opinion about her personally. No, his problem is that she’s not Jewish.

My uncle and my cousins are the considerably more observant branch of the family. My siblings and I have always enjoyed visiting my aunt (my mom’s sister) and my cousins. We used to visit them at least once a year, including an annual summer trip to the Jersey Shore. As kids, we knew that they were more observant than we were, and we knew not to mention things like “pepperoni pizza” around them, but we always had a good time. And I don’t think it’s exactly a secret to them anymore that my immediate family is somewhat more lax, Jewishly speaking, than they are. I can’t tell whether or not they think less of us, but if they do, they don’t let on.

As adults, my siblings and I still have a great time with my aunt and my cousins, even if sometimes they don’t seem to get our sense of humor, and even if we’re slightly on edge the whole time we’re there, terrified we might turn off a light we’re not supposed to on Saturday, or forget a major upcoming holiday, or just blurt out “pork!”

When my uncle found out that R— and I were engaged, he started a passive-aggressive guerilla campaign to talk me out of it. I say “passive-aggressive” and “guerilla” because he never said anything to my face (or hers) about it. In fact, the first time R— went with us to visit them, she made a great impression on him (and the rest of the family) by talking to him at great length about genealogy, a topic that’s of great interest to him and to almost no one else. No, his disapproval was expressed in the form of unsigned newspaper clippings or packages, sent to me about every four to six months over the course of our two-year engagement. One might be an article copied out of the Philadelphia Inquirer, with a headline like, “Jewish Community Speaks Out Against Intermarriage.” Or he might send me an old prayer book, with a post-it note saying “this was your grandfather’s” and a bookmark distributed by a Jewish organization that blared the warning: “Will your grandchildren be using this book?” I guess Uncle P— thought that if he could just bring enough third-party arguments to bear, I’d see the light and break off my engagement.

Needless to say, he skipped the wedding. I was offended, but not too broken up about it, because my aunt and my cousins came, and we had a great time. (My cousins, interestingly enough, sat out the wedding ceremony itself but joined us for the reception, which I presume was their compromise between their religious disapproval of our hybrid/interfaith wedding and their familial desire to support and celebrate with us. I’m not sure Emily Post would approve, but they were a big part of making the hora work, so we were cool with it.)

We hadn’t really spoken to Uncle P— since the wedding, and I wasn’t really looking forward to any sort of confrontation, so I wasn’t too disappointed when, after we arrived at my aunt’s house, he came home and made a beeline for their bedroom without stopping to say hello. It was Saturday afternoon, after Shabbat services, and we just figured maybe he needed a nap.

We spent all afternoon having a great time with my aunt and the three of my four cousins (including two of their spouses) who were in the country. We polished off lunch, we paged through family albums, we trotted out inside jokes, we put a serious dent in a pile of coconut cookies and blueberry cake, and we passed from lap to lap the most adorable baby I have ever seen. As the day wore on, though, we noticed something odd.

P— never left his bedroom.

My wife and my sister and I were bunking in the basement overnight, and we stayed up pretty late into the night whispering about it. “Is – is P— hiding from us?” “I think he’s boycotting!” “Is he sick?” Surely if P— hadn’t been feeling well, it would have been explained to us, or at least one of his kids would have said, “Where’s dad?” The fact that no one, over the entire course of our visit, even mentioned his absence clearly indicated to us that it was pre-arranged. As far as we could guess, Uncle P— must have wanted to disown me for marrying a non-Jew, but couldn’t get the rest of the family to go along with it, so decided to just do it himself. It was a one-man protest.

The most surreal moment came late Saturday night while we were all sitting around the dining room table eating various extravagant sundaes brought back from Friendly’s. My aunt’s cell phone rang, and she picked it up. “Hello? No. Yeah. No. No. Ok.” My cousin asked who it was. “Dad,” she answered.

He called her cell phone. From the bedroom. To ask someone to bring him his ice cream rather than come out and get it himself – and thereby risk having to see or talk to us.

I say “us,” but I have to believe his beef is actually with me. R— may be a non-Jew, but I’m the one who married her. What makes his sad, silent protest all the more weird is that my family has tried this experiment before. I’m not the first one to marry a non-Jew: my uncle Joel was briefly disowned when he married his wife 20-something years ago, but after a while the extended family seemed to relent and let him back into the fold. I thought that we, as a family, had learned a lesson there; I guess P— didn’t.

R— and I debriefed from the weekend in a McDonald’s at a rest stop on I-95, on the way home the next day. (We were eating those new sesame ginger salads, which we almost avoided on principle because the commercials are so annoying, but which turned out to be surprisingly good. Maybe our standards were lower in a rest stop than they’d be elsewhere – and there’s a weird sort of cognitive dissonance that results from eating edamame at a McDonald’s off the highway – but we’d recommend the salad.) Did P— really believe that by sequestering himself in his bedroom for the duration of our visit that he was somehow punishing us? Given his attitude towards the two of us, did he think we’d be disappointed not to be able to see him?

What made it unbelievable was that, to spite us, or to lodge a lonely protest against what he thought was an unforgivable betrayal of the Jewish people, or something, he sacrificed 24 hours with his new four-month-old grandson. Who was visiting for a week. From Israel. I… I don’t get it.

At this rate, Uncle P— is going to excise himself from the lives of each my siblings one by one. My brother has dated a string on non-Jewish women, and I’m not sure that religion is top-most on his list of criteria when evaluating a potential mate. And then there are my sisters. (Lesbians.)

I’m sorry that he feels the way he does, even if I think he’s being a jackass. R— summed up our ambivalence about the whole thing very neatly: “I’m… offended? But… kind of relieved? And, you know, if he’s going to sequester himself in his bedroom every time we’re there, half of me wants to never visit ever again – and half of me wants to go visit every weekend.”