First Amendment Friday: February 3, 2017

February 3, 2017 Featured, First Amendment Fridays Comments (0) 182

Fun fact: Donald Trump isn’t even three weeks into his Presidency! If you’re like me, you are already tired of winning.

Like the previous two weeks of Trump, this one has been overwhelming, especially if you’re concerned about the First Amendment. We’re going to focus on the big cases here, and maybe come back in a future week to some things that slip through the cracks.

If there was a theme this week in First Amendent News, it was “Conservatives Misintepreting the First Amendment.” So grab your handy study guide, and let’s dive in.

Does the Alt-Right have Alt-Rights?

A massive protest by students at UC Berkeley led staff to cancel a scheduled speech by Twitterless alt-right troll Milo Something-or-Other. The move ignited debates across the Internet and inspired our President, who has not yet made any statement about the alt-right terrorist who murdered innocent Canadian Muslims during prayer service, to threaten the university’s federal funding.

Despite outcry, of course, Milo’s First Amendment rights were in no way impinged. The First Amendment does not protect against opposing speech from fellow citizens, nor does it guarantee a podium and a microphone. It is a protection against punishment or censorship by the government — and it is likely, had Milo the courage to step out onto the sidewalk and engage his speech rights the way any other American may, that the government (in the form of police) would have protected him.

Instead Milo ran away, because alt-right trolls are cowardly, and claiming persecution fits his narrative and his brand better than, you know, using his freedom of speech. The protesters, meanwhile, fully engaged their First Amendment rights to assembly and expression, and responded to offensive speech in exactly the right way — by raising their own voices.

The First Amendment does not mean the police force thousands of protesters to keep silent so you can give your Nazi PowerPoint. That said, I’ll step off my soap box.

Religion, Refugees, and Resistance

Late last week President Trump kept his promise to ban Muslims from the United States with just about the sloppiest roll-out of immigration policy in US history. You may have heard of this one. In response, thousands of Americans turned up at airports across the country to protest. Notably, Presidential sycophant/Svengali Steve Bannon blamed these protests, which happened in cities like Indianapolis, Louisville, Omaha, and Nashville on the metropolitan coastal elites. One wonders where he thinks the coast is.

On Thursday, more than one thousand small business owners in New York City, most of Yemeni nationality, closed their shops for eight hours to join a protest at a federal courthouse in Brooklyn. Messages of solidarity and donations came from neighbors and supporters in New York City and worldwide.

There is debate as to whether Trump’s Muslim Ban (which, notably, extends only to nations in which Trump does not have personal business interests) violates the Constitution’s prohibition on religious discrimination, but many experts say it runs afoul of Constitution law in multiple ways. Immigration law is complex, and the President does have significant leeway, but several federal judges have issued orders suspending various elements of the ban on several rationale. Further court scrutiny is still to come, and the ultimate fate of the ban remains to be seen.

Trump Threatens LGBTQ+ Rights… or Does He?

The queer community watched Monday as reports emerged that Trump would reverse President Obama’s executive order protecting LGBT employees When word spread Tuesday that Trump would keep Obama’s policy in place, some in the community expressed cautious relief. Then on Thursday, the press obtained a leaked draft of an executive order protecting “Religious Freedom” that would legalize discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Just another week with Trump in the White House.

Trump’s order would also limit women’s access to contraception under the ACA, and would present particular harm to trans Americans. The administration has stated he has “no immediate plans” to sign the order, though it’s up in the air what exactly that means — that he won’t sign it this week? Today? That he doesn’t have a pen in his hand at this moment? Who can say?!

This SCOTUS Nomination Gor-Sucks

Speaking of “religious freedom,” the likely next member of the Supreme Court (occupying the seat left vacant by the illegal and immoral obstruction of former-almost-justice Merrick Garland) has a lot of scary ideas. We don’t yet know his views on abortion since, like many lawyers hoping for a Supreme Court appointment, he has avoided the topic almost entirely.

What we do know is that the Religious Right is extremely excited about him, and we know that Donald Trump promised during his campaign that he would only appoint Justices who opposed abortion.

We know that Gorsuch was unhappy with the Hobby Lobby decision, which allowed employers to decide whether female employees can take birth control, because he didn’t think it gave the employers enough authority. And we know that he has strong opinions that Americans should not be permitted the autonomy over their bodies to decide when they want to die. Because, you know, God and stuff.

On LGBTQ+ rights, Gorsuch has expressed an opinion that it should be left to so-called states rights, and state legislators should have say over what queer people can do with their own bodies.

Oh, and he really hates liberals. In high school he thought it was a hilarious joke to compare liberals with fascists, and as recently as 2005 he published essays about how awful liberals are.

So… Not great.

The Collection Plate PAC

Sigh. Staying on the theme of so-called “religious freedom,” President Trump vowed to “destroy” the law that prohibits churches, as non-profit organizations, from engaging in unlimited lobbying and political advocacy.

 It’s hard to get too upset about losing a law that really hasn’t been enforced in recent years. But it’s worth pointing out that, once again, there is no First Amendment violation in the law.

The law does not prohibit churches from political speech. In fact it solely addresses their non-profit tax status. Under the US Tax Code, specific types of activity are granted non-taxable status. Religious practice is one of those types of activity; political advocacy is not.

Nonprofits are permitted only a limited amount of political advocacy as part of their mission. Non-profit organizations that do a lot of lobbying therefore establish multiple corporate entities; the ACLU, where I was on staff as a fundraiser, existed as both a 501(c)(3) charity, which did little to no lobbying work and to which contributions were tax deductible, and a 501(c)(4) lobbying organization, which funds the political advocacy work and to which donations (including membership dues) are NOT tax deductible.

Churches nationwide, however, have been getting away with spending massive amounts of money on lobbying and political advocacy all under the banner of their 501(c)(3) tax status. Many people (myself included) have insisted that they should be subject to the same rules as other charities, but there has been little to no effort to enforce the tax code. Now Donald Trump wants to “destroy” the law that has not been enforced.

If churches are spending a lot of money on political advocacy, they should be paying taxes on that particular money. That’s the only question here, there is no “prohibition” on any type of speech or religious expression.

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You are one person, and your brain can’t handle the whole world.

February 2, 2017 Featured, In The News Comments (1) 220

As the resistance to President Trump approaches its third week, one of the most frequent comments I hear from protesters, in person and online, is how overwhelming this feels.

Every day there’s some new horrible thing — no, scratch that. Every day there are ten new horrible things to worry about and oppose, and the harder we fight on one front, the more likely it seems that something else will slip through the cracks.

It’s a lot. More, I think, than any human is really designed to handle. So even as you keep up the good fight, you need to be kind to yourself and know your limits.

Fieldstone Cottage

Doesn’t this look cozy and relaxing??

Humans are incredibly social animals. Our brains are pretty much entirely dedicated to social interaction, and for most of us the entire world exists in the social interactions with our peers and neighbors. Most of the incredible infrastructure and technology we’ve developed ultimately serves to further our social interactions, and there is no other animal, as far as I know, that will end its life because another of its species rejected it.

It’s important to recognize the power that has over us — and also to bear in mind that we are not evolved to have all the world’s problems delivered to us in real time, the way modern media makes possible. We’re evolved to have relatively small lives, focus on a finite number of family members and friends, and handle the occasional threat or crisis.

Think about humans a hundred and fifty years ago; most had no idea what was happening in the rest of the world. Even their newspaper was likely focused on local happenings, with a few stories of national interest. They hadn’t a clue what was happening in Mexico, let alone China or Pakistan or the Sudan.

Even just a couple of decades ago, most Americans got everything they knew about the world from the morning newspaper and the evening news. Yes, they knew more about the world, but it wasn’t a constant bombardment of push notifications and tweets and breaking news alerts.

Sure, we’re capable of more than that, but to care for yourself and protect your mental health, it helps to compartmentalize, and give your brain what it’s evolved for.

Find your little world, and focus on that.

Imagine for a moment that all your electronics vanished. Who and what would be left in the world around you? That’s the world your brain evolved for.

Take time, periodically, to focus on your family and friends. Get away from TV and Internet, set your smartphone aside. Play a board game, or a video game. Talk, face to face. Hug one another, take in sights and smells. Make memories.

For me, it helps to remember that even in the worst crises the world has ever known, people have found solace in their closest relationships: their family and friends. Don’t lose sight of that.

If you can, get out into the wilderness. A nature walk in your neighborhood is great, and very soothing. Even better is to get out into a remote part of the mountains or the forest, so far from civilization that you don’t even get phone signal. Camp out if you can. There’s a certain primal instinct that activates when you feel like it’s just you and the natural world. To me it’s almost like pressing the reset button on my brain. Nothing puts my life in perspective like a weekend deep in the woods.

Spend time with animals. If you don’t have pets, go to the zoo, or a farm. The crazy thing about animals is they have no idea all the big dramatic problems humans are stressing about. I worked at a zoo in 2001, and I very clearly remember taking a walk around the grounds on September 11 and realizing none of the animals had the slightest clue about the crushing shared trauma I felt. There was a certain peace in that.

My theory: Don’t get your news from a person on screen.

I don’t get any of my news from the television (or any video medium) and I recommend you follow that example. I have a theory that watching and hearing an actual human on screen tricks your brain into feeling like you have a relationship. You unconsciously pick up the emotions of the speaker, and that adds to your stress — it makes your world too big.

I don’t think the same thing happens when you read or listen to the radio or a podcast. Those things certainly stimulate emotional response, but I don’t think it triggers the same degree of social stimulation that TV does.

Mind you, I have no scientific research to back this up. It’s just my own pet theory.

I’m not saying don’t watch video — just don’t get your news that way. Video can be great for escapism, and when times get really stressful I like fun, frivolous entertainment. When I’m feeling stressed, I’m particularly fond of watching Hannah Hart’s My Drunk Kitchen on YouTube. Hannah’s fun and funny with just the right does of insight and perspective. She makes you feel like you’re friends — in a very good way, unlike your TV friends Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly, who are constantly freaking you out.

When I was in college, and dealing with crushing (undiagnosed) anxiety disorder, I found a TV show called “Acorn the Nature Nut” on Animal Planet. On each episode, an Edmontonian named John Acorn would explore the wildlife in his back yard, and talk about animals like slugs and tiger beatles. It was incredibly soothing — I can’t find any full episodes on YouTube, but you can watch the intro song if you’d like:

For you, maybe it’s episodes of Mister Rogers (another personal favorite) or Bob Ross, or a sporting event. Maybe it’s home movies.

The point is, as important as this fight is (and as much as you may feel like the world is burning down while your back is turned) it’s critically important that you focus on the small, immediate world in which you exist.

That’s what your brain is designed for. And you aren’t going to get very far without your brain.


Images from Wikimedia Commons

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First Amendment Friday: January 27, 2017

January 27, 2017 Featured, First Amendment Fridays Comments (0) 210

Congratulations, Internet! We made it to another Friday, a whole week into the Trump Presidency. Only… 207 more weeks to go. Hoo boy.

It did take almost an entire week for Steve Ganondorf Bannon to declare the press officially “the opposition party.” In the meantime, Trump and his surrogates have mainly stuck to veiled threats toward the “media.” American reporters may all be headed to re-Ned-ucation soon, but so far it’s all talk. So let’s turn the eyes of liberty elsewhere.

[A brief aside: I have a Patreon page, and I would love your support! I’ve been blogging for more than ten years here, and have never yet turned a profit. Patreon makes it very easy to commit to as little as one dollar a month, so if you like what I’m putting into the world, please consider becoming a patron!]

Women be Marchin’

The Women’s March on Washington, and worldwide “sister marches” on Saturday, January 21, were very likely the largest protest action in the history of… well, the world. Estimates put the number of marchers in the United States between 3.3 and 5.4 million. That’s roughly one to two percent of the nation. and worldwide estimates range from around 250 to 350 thousand. Good job, everybody!

I marched in the New York City Women’s March. You can see some of my photos here, and read some suggested next steps for marchers who may be wondering where to put that energy now.

Side note: I only today learned that there was a Women’s March in the French Revolution, in which the ladies marched on Versailled and evicted the King. I don’t know if that reference was intentional, but I sure hope so.

PA Supreme Court Hears Rapper Charged with Threatening Police

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is considering the case of Jamal Knox, who raps under the name Mayhem Mal. Knox, a 22-year old resident of Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, was arrested and charged after, well…

“The case began with an April 2012 traffic stop in the city’s East Liberty section, when Knox, now 22, drove away after telling an officer he did not have a valid driver’s license. Following a chase in which he hit a parked car and a fence, police found 15 bags of heroin and $1,500 on Knox and a stolen, loaded gun in the vehicle.”

Yikes. But none of that is what this case is about! Seven months after that, police found a rap video on YouTube in which they say Knox threatened them. Knox’s lawyers say the video is a protest, and protected free speech under the First Amendment. Police counter that the lyrics, which include references to “cop killer” bullets and Richard Poplawski (who killed three Pittsburgh officers in 2009) constitutes a true threat.

For more on Knox’s case, Lily Hirsch has a terrific write-up over at The Establishment.

Third Time’s a Charm for Colorado Religious Discrimination Bill

The Colorado House has, for the third time in three years, defeated attempts to pass a “Religious Freedom Bill” that would legalize discrimination.

We’re going to see a lot of these in 2017, so get ready. “Religious Freedom,” in this context of course, means turning gay people away from your business. Because as Jesus said, it is easier for a fat man to fit through the eye of a needle than to bake a cake for two dudes getting married. Or something like that.

Meanwhile, back in Pennsylvania, a restaurateur in Annville allegedly kicked out a black student after calling him a racial slur. The student, Rickey Lee Bugg Jr, says the owner of Just Wing It told him “Trump’s President… so I can say what I want.”

In point of fact, that is not [yet] the case. But who knows? Once they get a taste of legalizing discrimination, the GOP may try to push us all the way back to the 1950s.

Quick note here for the unaware. The First Amendment does not apply to speech or expression in pursuit of profit. That’s considered commerce and therefore, under the Constitution itself, may be regulated.

Federal Court Hears Suit on Concealing Actors’ Ages

Maybe it’s insensitive of me, but I’m going to call this the “Jenna Maroney” Law.

A federal court is hearing a challenge to a California law, passed last year, that prohibits commercial casting websites from listing actors’ ages. The law was promoted by Screen Actors Guild President Gabrielle Carteris, who was 29 when she landed the role of 17-year-old Andrea Zuckerman on Beverly Hills, 90210. Carteris was able to conceal her age, but believes that sites like IMDB today deny actors that opportunity.

Most experts warned California legislators at the time of passage that the law wouldn’t withstand scrutiny. The First Amendment protects the right to list virtually any information, including the age of an actor. If you’re an actor going out for a part that is *ahem* a bit young for you, better act fast.

 

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What Hillary Clinton Could Learn from Charity Fundraisers

January 23, 2017 Featured, In The News, Politics / Religion Comments (0) 127

[Up front, a disclaimer: This is not a “why Hillary Clinton lost” post. I’m as sick of those as you are. This is sharing some thoughts on a lesson I think we might learn, and improve on in the future.]

In addition to my various creative endeavors, in my day job I’m a nonprofit fundraiser. I don’t talk about it much because, frankly, I don’t think most people would find it especially interesting. But I’ve been doing it for about 15 years, and I’ve learned a lot of things.

The most important lesson I’ve learned as a fundraiser, I think, is talk with the donor about the donor. A lot of people, when they want to convince someone’s support, they start listing great things about the organization. How long they’ve been around, the great staff, the many people they’ve helped, and so on. But that’s wrong.

People want to hear about themselves, not about you.

Donors don’t want to support an organization, they want to do something good for the world. When you see a hurricane or a flood, you don’t give to the Red Cross because you’re worried about the organization. You give because you want to help the victims.

In that respect, philanthropy is a selfish act. Donors want something from their donation–they want the knowledge that their gift is doing good, and the feel-good feeling that comes along with that. For that reason, a good fundraiser doesn’t talk about how great the charity is. They talk about how great the donor is. Don’t talk about “me,” “we,” or “us.” The important word is always “You.”

Credit is due here to Tom Ahern and Jeff Brooks, from whom I learned this rule. In Brooks’s book How to Turn Your Words into Money, he goes so far as to present a template for a fundraising letter that is just the word “You” over and over again. From there, says Brooks, you fill in the blanks.

What can successful politicians learn from fundraisers?

So why do I bring this up now? Because I’ve been reflecting on the 2016 Election, and how Hillary Clinton failed to follow this rule.

One of the most common complaints I heard about Hillary was that she was “too ambitious.” This was from both Trump voters who hated her, and reluctant Democrats. Now, I will not discount the role sexism plays in this assessment. It’s classic sexism to regard ambition as a negative quality in a woman.

However, I think there may have been something else at play here as well. Hillary Clinton talked about herself a lot. I wonder if this created a perception that her campaign was about her, rather than about the voters, and if this might be what some voters meant when they said she was “too ambitious.”

Obama, and even Trump, talked more about the voters

I’ve been trying to recall how often, during his first Presidential campaign, Barack Obama even mentioned the fact that he would be the first Black President. I’ve asked friends, Googled, watched some old speeches, and I don’t think he ever mentioned it once. Other people did, certainly, but I don’t think Obama himself ever addressed it.

Hillary, by contrast, mentioned her opportunity to become the first woman president quite frequently. If it came up in every speech, that would not surprise me.

I don’t fault her for that, any more than I would fault Obama for mentioning his own historic opportunity. I mention it not because of his race, or her gender, but because that focus made Hillary’s rhetoric more self-oriented than Obama’s. Even the slogan, “I’m with Her,” put the focus on the candidate herself, rather than the people she sought to serve. While it would lack the clever double-meaning, “She’s with You” may have worked better, from that perspective.

In some respect, Hillary’s experience might have worked against her. Yes, she ranked among the most qualified candidate ever to run for President. And yes, as a woman she was under an unfair obligation to state her qualifications. But every time she recited her remarkable resume, she was talking about herself instead of talking about the voters.

The remarkable thing here is, if we analyze the rhetoric of Donald Trump, narcissist though he is, he did better. When Trump took the podium at any of his rallies, he talked a lot about the voters and his promises to them. I lack the resources to count the number of times each candidate used the word “You,” but I bet Trump far outpaced Clinton.

The candidate as cipher for voters’ hopes and dreams

There’s a particular similarity some commentators have pointed out between Barack Obama and Donald Trump. I’m paraphrasing here, but the similarity is that supporters of both candidates tended to attribute views neither candidate ever actually expressed. Each was, to some extent, a policy cipher onto whom voters could map their own wants and desires. In 2016, I had a Facebook friend explain to me how Donald Trump was going to eliminate the federal deficit and pay off the debt–during the same period when Trump himself promised to build a wall across the southern border and deliver massive investments in infrastructure.

I suspect part of the reason Trump and Obama presented this opportunity is because they talked more about the voters than about themselves. In contrast, by presenting so many concrete policy positions, Hillary won the allegiance of voters like me, but she also clearly defined herself. That stripped voters of the ability to attribute their own values.

At least I think that might be the case.

It’s possible that political strategists already embrace the same rule as fundraisers. Certainly, in 2016 fundraising is a priority role for political candidates–if not their primary responsibility. But it’s not something I’ve heard pundits comment on. I suspect it’s something to which candidates and strategists may want to pay closer attention.

 


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Women’s March: Welcome to the Resistance. Here’s What to Do Next.

January 22, 2017 Civil Rights, Featured, In The News Comments (0) 396

Congratulations, ladies [and gentlemen, and non-binary folks], you did it! The Women’s March brought three million people into the streets in the largest protest movement in American history. In a world of television and Internet and home delivery, you got people out of their homes and into the streets. Do you know how powerful that is?

You stood, and you marched, and you chanted, for kindness and equality and decency — and you brought your kids! Their understanding of American democracy is so much richer for it — they will grow up seeing themselves as active participants with a voice and a responsibility. That’s amazing.

But what do we do now? You’re probably still buzzing with adrenaline and patriotic fervor. You’re looking through photos from yesterday. Maybe you’re thinking about framing your sign. But one protest does not a movement make, and there are places you can put that energy where it will go to good use.

I can’t provide you with a definitive list (ie, I’ll definitely leave out some worthwhile causes) but here are some suggestions.

A young man at the New York City Women's March, dressed in costume as a minuteman and holding a sign that reads "I'll take King George over Trump."

1. Don’t stop protesting!!

It may be a while before we get another three million people out in the streets — but there are protests, rallies, and marches happening all around you, all the time. Your voice, your time, and your body are the most powerful contribution you can make to most movements.

Two women at the New York City Women's March, holding a handmade collage featuring images of famous and notable women.

…and if you are a white person, as we’ve discussed before, your presence at a protest will bring credibility, attention, and safety. Police are far less likely to abuse white people, the media is more likely to both cover the protest and actually take time to understand the message, and other Americans are more likely to take your demands seriously, and not label you a riot.

Yes, that sucks. But it’s reality. Meet the new “post-racial” America, same as the old super-racist America. But hey, this is something you can help change!

You can join almost any protest, whether you see it on TV or walk past it on the street. Even if people look angry. Just ask “Why are you protesting?” and if the answer is something you agree with, say “Is it all right if I join you?” The answer will almost certainly be, “Yes, here’s a sign.”

2. Learn about some intersectional movements.

Did I mention that three million people in the streets is incredible? In fact, there are a lot of other movements that would love to have even a tiny fraction of that support. And now that you’ve been one of those people out marching in the streets, you may find yourself with a revised perspective on their approach and tactics.

Might I suggest Black Lives Matter?

I know, I know, you’ve seen the fights with police, and people think the name is divisive, and you think maybe you read something about one of those terrorist gunmen having ties with the group, and etcetera.

That’s why I say learn about the movement. Did you know Black Lives Matter has a platform with six clear and simple demands, including reforming our criminal justice system, greater investments in education, and action on income inequality? That all sounds… pretty familiar.

At the core of it, though, the Black Lives Matter movement is about exactly what it sounds like. For too long, American society has treated the lives of Black Americans as worthless, or worth less at least than the lives of white Americans. That has to end — and isn’t that something you can march for?

To be fair, you don’t have to join Black Lives Matter. I just think you should. There are lots of other progressive movements — LGBTQ rights, environmental protection, economic justice, education, anti-war, anti-incarceration, and plenty more — that desperately need more voices to help achieve their goals. Get out there.

A young woman in a headscarf at the New York City Women's March holds up Shepard Fairey's "WE THE PEOPLE" poster featuring a woman in an American flag headscarf.

3. Raise up the voices of those with less power.

White folks, brace yourselves, because this one might upset you to read.

The Women’s March, powerful and inspiring as it was, had some pretty serious issues with racism. Organizers failed in their moral obligation to seek out and include minority voices among their leadership, and responded to critics by silencing them. Not great.

A young woman at the New York City Women's March, atop her father's shoulders with a sign reading "The Future is Female!"You might think such complaints are petty, or divisive, or detract from the central message. But look: Lots of activists have dedicated their lives to protest movements, only to be ignored. When a movement like this rises up, only to be dominated by the voices of white people who are relatively new to this, and push other movements further to the margins, they have a valid reason to be upset.

Again, as white people in America, we have a privilege: People will listen to us, especially when we get together in a group on the street. Cripes, the Tea Party got news coverage for rallies that were sometimes less than a hundred people.

We have a responsibility, a moral obligation, to raise up and amplify the voices of people who do not share our privilege. That doesn’t mean just welcoming people to attend, it means actively involving people, recruiting them even, to share leadership in a movement. In 2017, there is no excuse for failing at that.

I’m not here to say “the Women’s March is bad.” I’m saying they failed, in a major way, and we should all learn from that. We have to do better.

4. Spread the message.

Three million people is a lot, but it’s still only one percent of America. I am already seeing questions and debates on Facebook, as marchers share their photos and friends and relatives respond with confusion and/or disagreement.

A young woman, dressed in costume as the famous "We Can Do It!" poster at the New York City Women's March

It can be intimidating to stand up against opposition from friends and relatives. Lots of people avoid “politics on Facebook,” but if you were out to march yesterday you probably feel strong enough about it to engage.

Here’s a tip: State your position, clearly and boldly, and don’t get into back-and-forth arguments. If you need to clarify a point, do so, but avoid “You’re wrong and here’s why.”

Why? Because the goal is not to force other people to agree with you; it’s to express your position and let others make up their minds. Back-and-forth, which almost always gets bitter and personal, makes everybody look bad. You don’t need to defend yourself, just be the boldest, proudest voice for what’s right.

The same goes for all of your other social interactions, not just the electronic epicenter of 2017 culture. Be brave. Have faith that seeds of thought take time to germinate, and sometimes people who disagree with you today — violently, even — will tell you years later how you helped them see the light.

Share your photos, your signs, and your opinions. Do so with pride. Then sign off, and go play with your kids.

A young child rides his father's shoulders at the New York City Women's March

5. Get involved in politics. 2018 is coming fast.

Personally, I think the message of the Women’s March is bigger than any political party. It’s about humanity and culture, and equating it with “Get more Democrats elected” seems to cheapen it.

On the other hand, the new Republican President is the one who galvanized this movement, and the Republican party of late has taken a position in direct opposition to most of what Women’s Marchers stand for. So let’s get some Democrats elected!

For starters, an organization called Indivisible is here to help Americans participate effectively in opposing the Trump agenda. If you‘re looking for the most effective way to get involved, they have an easy-to-navigate web site to help.

Another group, Swing Left, will help you find the contested House district that’s closest to your home. Remember, every single member of the House of Representatives is up for reelection in 2018. Yes, many districts are gerrymandered beyond hope, but on the bright side House districts are small, and turnout for mid-term elections is tiny. Mobilizing only a small number of voters to get out and cast ballots will make a difference, and your direct action might be the key. That’s how the Tea Party did it in 2010, so look no further for proof.

Women protesting at the New York City Womens March

6. Get Woke, Stay Woke.

Yeah okay, people who describe themselves as “woke” are usually the worst. But it’s the only word I know that easily encapsulates an understanding of the vast world of social justice.

I’ll point you to a piece I wrote after the election, How to Easily be a White Ally to Marginalized Communities, that included some tips for expanding your understanding of social justice, AKA “Getting woke.” In short, you need to be reading and listening to the voices of marginalized people. White people [like me] can be a helpful [*ahem*non-threatening*ahem*] point of entry, but we can only take you so far.

One fun read is “The 8 Wokest White People We Know,” at The Root, which illustrates some examples and provides positive role models for white folks.

Incidentally, I highly recommend becoming a regular reader of The Root. A Black-owned, Black-operated, and Black-oriented magazine, it pulls no punches and is guaranteed to expand your perspective and hit you right in your latent-racist white feels.

The cool thing is, the “woker” you get, the less guidance you’ll need about how you can take action. Instead you can begin to serve as a guide for other people, helping them along the path to fighting against racism and sexism and shaping our future America into a place of equality and opportunity.

You know, that thing we’ve been lying to ourselves about being all along.

Young women in pink pussy hats prepare for the New York City Womens March in front of a wall of Donald Trump signs

Hi! You can read this and similar pieces at my home page, where I make a tiny little bit of money from your visit. I’d love if you’d follow me there, and on Twitter. Thanks!

All photos accompanying this article are my own, taken at the Women’s March in New York City yesterday (January 21, 2017). They may be used under Creative Commons License 4.0 Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND). In other words, you can use them without having to ask, but please make sure to credit me as photographer and don’t change them around without my permission. If you feel like it, I’d love to know where you do use them.

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Nate Silver swung the election. He should admit it.

January 20, 2017 Featured, In The News, Politics / Religion Comments (0) 209

It’s a simple but unfortunate fact that most humans don’t understand probability. It’s not our fault, exactly. Our primate brains are not designed for it. Take the Gambler’s Fallacy: If a coin flip comes up heads nine times in a row, you should bet on tails, right? It’s due, right? Well, no. If you’re educated you probably know the odds are still 50/50. But the multi-billion dollar gambling industry is built on how terrible our brains are at probability.

This is why it’s so infuriating to hear Nate Silver, patriarch and spokesman for data journalism, insist he didn’t swing the 2016 Presidential election.

The REAL Real story of 2016

Since Trump’s win, Silver has done innumerable interviews in which he disavows any responsibility. He’s prone to a judgmental tone about the way people treated polling data, and a blasé, even willfully obtuse response to suggestions that he had a role.

Yesterday, Nate Silver published a long analysis, titled “The Real Story of 2016,” in which he begins with a question: “Why, then, had so many people who covered the campaign been so confident of Clinton’s chances? This is the question I’ve spent the past two to three months thinking about.”

To his credit, Silver does acknowledge the role of polling data, and FiveThirtyEight specifically, but his analysis seats responsibility squarely with FiveThiryEight’s readers, and journalists who “lumped together” their model with other, differing forecasts. There is no recognition that the way Silver and his fellow data journalists represent their findings might be inherently misleading. No recognition that the winding path the election took might have been shaped by a certain hourglass-shaped graphic.

Data journalism changes how our elections work

Data journalism is young, and Silver’s model of compiling and analyzing poll data to produce a single projection has been with us for only three Presidential elections. Following his success in 2008, many (myself included) began treating Silver as some kind of wizard. Revisionist history will likely forget the absolute confidence with which many regarded FiveThirtyEight’s prediction pre-Trump.

In the months prior to the 2016 Election Hillary Clinton’s win seemed predestined. Journalists, talking heads, even candidates themselves tended to treat her as if she were already President. It is highly likely that strategic decisions were informed by that perspective, both within the Campaign and outside.

What might have been different, had people not assumed a Hillary win? Would the Obama White House have moved faster to let the nation know about Russian interference? Would FBI Director James Comey have sent his infamous letter to Congress? Would the Clinton Campaign have invested so much into states like Texas and Arizona, and so little in Michigan and Wisconsin? Would the mainstream press have focused so intensely on Clinton’s email “scandal,” or turned their attention to more intense scrutiny of Trump?

All of this is down to speculation, of course, but it stands to reason that some of the elements that shaped the outcome might have been different. In a few cases, dramatically so. Strategists live and die by polling data, and in 2016 Nate Silver was inarguably the forecast most people followed.

There is an argument that data journalism distorts our understanding of polling data. In October, following the final Presidential debate, polls showed Clinton with a four- to seven-point lead on Trump. That’s a sizable lead, but still a close race. FiveThirtyEight put Clinton’s odds at 88 percent. The Upshot said 89.

Silver’s front page projection is the core of the problem.

In interviews, Silver invariably defends himself by citing FiveThirtyEight’s disclaimers about polling errors. And that’s fair. It’s in the headline of this piece from November 4, and as a regular reader I will attest that this point was regularly included in their reporting. But direct your browser to FiveThirtyEight and you aren’t met by a nuanced analysis. You see this.

The 71 percent forecast comes from just before the election. By that point, it was too late for strategic shifts. A month earlier, Clinton’s odds were near 90 percent.The Upshot employs a similar presentation. Ignore the yellow bar here, that showed up only on Election Day.

“Who will win the Presidency?” asks FiveThirtyEight. “Who will be President?” says the Upshot. Then a simple percentage. No mention of polling errors, no disclaimer about margins. Not unless you click through to more detailed analysis. I can’t access internal traffic reports for either site, but I’m willing a small percentage did so. And that sets aside the way those numbers are reported across other outlets–though in fairness to Silver, that plays to his point about other journalists misrepresenting his work.

Nate Silver understands probability. He doesn’t understand people.

The fact is, the projection model pioneered by Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight shaped the way Americans, including election strategists and the candidates themselves, understood the Election. Arguably, it was the single most influential factor. Yes, there are many other polls to take apart, and in past decades that’s what analysts did. But having a single projection is much neater, and easier for our primate brains to understand.

85 percent. Good. So Hillary will win.

Statisticians like Silver, who are better than most of us with probability, don’t see it that way. On Twitter, I’ve personally been chastised by people who say people should never have regarded Silver’s projection as “deterministic.” Which, again, is true, but it shows a failure on the part of data journalists to understand how bad most humans are with odds.

Personally, I still like Nate Silver, and I like data journalism. I don’t believe such projections should not exist. In the wake of what happened in 2016, however, I do think serious consideration should go toward how it’s presented. I do think a single projection, presented as a thermometer at the top of the front page, is harmful. It distorts the way people view the election and its likely outcome, and in doing so it shapes the election itself.

I’d like to see that change, but even more, I’d like Nate Silver to acknowledge his responsibility. It’s pretty obvious that when it comes to statistics, Nate Silver’s brain works better than most. The same does not appear to be true when it comes to human nature.

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First Amendment Friday: January 20, 2017

January 19, 2017 Civil Rights, Featured, First Amendment Fridays, Gay and Lesbian Comments (1) 129

Happy Friday! It’s January 20, spring is two months away, and I’ve been 38 for three whole days. There’s something else happening today, too, but damned if I can remember what it is. Still, some unnamed impulse has inspired me to bring back the old Friday First Amendment Roundup, which I haven’t written since I worked for the ACLU. That same feeling tells me I’ll try to keep at it for the next four years.

So… Let’s all dust off our vintage Louis Brandeis decoder rings and see what’s happening with the Constitutional Amendment that’s First in all our hearts.

The Slants, the Supreme Court, and the NFL

The Slants, an Oregon-based band whose members are all Asian-American, appeared before the Supreme Court this week. Why? The US Trademark office says a 70-year old law forbids them from registering racially offensive names. The Slants (whose name comes partly from a derogatory term for Asian-Americans) say the law violates their freedom of speech.

Watching with great interest is the NFL’s Washington-based football team, whose name will not appear here. In 2014, the Trademark Office stripped said team of their trademark rights, costing them major profits. They are definitely rooting for the Slants; no word yet on any SCOTUS-related face painting.

Curb Your Rights

DAPL Protesters, photo by Flickr user Fibonacci Blue

Photo: Flickr user Fibonacci Blue.

As the nation prepares for a protest that may be one of the largest in our history, five separate states have introduced legislation to crack down on peaceful protests. Oh, excuse me. That should read Republican legislators in five separate states.

Especially targeted are highway protests, popular with Black Lives Matter and Dakota Access protesters. Minnesota and Iowa seek to make such protests illegal, while in North Dakota lawmakers think motorists should be able to kill protesters with impunity. Provided they claim it was an accident, of course.

Washington state and Michigan are also looking at criminalizing protests. A number of these legislators, by the way, consider themselves members of the Tea Party Caucus. I seem to recall something there to do with protest… but let’s move on.

A Big, Beautiful Problem with the First Amendment. Just Huge.

It says here that some guy named… Donald Trump(?) is taking over as President. Trump has shown himself to be no friend to the First Amendment, and the Nation does a good job of breaking down the biggest issues, from his relationship with the press and his abuse of libel laws to his endorsement of laws against flag-burning.

The Nation doesn’t mention much about the religious freedom provisions of the First Amendment. This Atlantic article from late December covers the bases: Anti-Muslim discrimination, mosque surveillance, and attempts to legalize discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and religious minorities. It’s morning in America, people.

Did I say morning? Sorry, I meant mourning. Damn homophones.

Hey, trivia: A “homophone” is the reason Mike Pence currently lets all his calls to go voice mail. And speaking of the midwest…

Priority of Zion

The ACLU is currently fighting a new law in Ohio that forbids the state from contracting with any business that boycotts Israel. Similar laws have recently passed or been introduced in about half of US states, including New York. The ACLU warns that such legislation not only punishes legal political action, but risks punishing businesses that divest from Israel for apolitical reasons, like new tarriffs.

Writing in Slate last April, Columbia Law Professor Katherine Franke and attorney Michael Ratner pointed out the irony of Zionist crackdowns on boycotts, observing that the Jewish community had long used boycotts as effective political tools. The two also expressed concern that such anti-boycott initiatives could be deployed against the LGBTQ+ population, which has deployed high-profile boycotts against anti-equality legislation in states like Indiana and North Carolina.

Anti-equality legislation? Hey, that brings us back to Mike Pence! So why not…

The No-Pence Party

In what has to be my favorite political protest… I don’t know, ever? LGBTQ+ activists staged a massive queer dance party outside Mike Pence’s DC-area home, just days before Pence was sworn in as Vice President. Protesters in hot pants and various rainbow garments sang, gyrated, and called for “Daddy Pence” to come out and join in the festivities.

Which goes to show: When it comes to American political protest, eventually it always comes back to tea bags.

Yeah… Sorry.


Top Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Don’t Let Republicans Pretend Racists Face Discrimination

January 19, 2017 Civil Rights, Featured, In The News Comments (0) 128

A bizarre but illustrative moment came during last week’s confirmation hearings for Senator Jeff Sessions: As NAACP President and CEO Cornell Brooks offered testimony, Lindsey Graham (Republican senator from South Carolina) confronted him about the NAACP’s civil rights legislative scorecard.

Graham read scores for several prominent members of Congress, pointedly contrasting the high scores by Democrats with the low scores for Republicans. Graham then leveled the following:

“It means that you’re picking things that conservative Republicans don’t agree with you on and liberal Democrats do. I hope that doesn’t make us all racist and all of them perfect on the issue.

I think the report card says volumes about how you view Republican conservatives. Maybe we’re all wrong and maybe you’re all right. I doubt if it’s that way.”

Did you catch that? Lindsay Graham suspects the NAACP is discriminating against Republicans by giving them low scores on a Civil Rights scorecard. The Republicans, who have built a 60-year platform opposing civil rights and advancing policies that harm people of color.

Opposing Hate is Not Discrimination

It’s surprisingly hard to lay hands on a copy of a recent NAACP scorecard, but their 2009–2010 scorecard lays out the issues they deem important, including predatory lending, opposing school voucher programs, ensuring wage equality, health care reform, and strengthening hate crime laws, among others. As Brooks says in his response, “The ratings are based on legislation, not party affiliation.”

This is of a piece with recent right-wing outrage over fashion designers who announced they would refuse Ivanka and Melania Trump their business. Designer Sophie Theallet, the first such designer, issued a statement explaining her refusal to dress the incoming First Lady: “The rhetoric of racism, sexism, and xenophobia unleashed by her husband’s presidential campaign are incompatible with the shared values we live by.”

Non-discrimination laws, like those enforced against homophobic cake artists, do not forbid any person from denying service to any other person. They forbid certain specific types of discrimination, including that based on race, religion, gender, disability, veteran status, sexual orientation, and others. The Supreme Court labels these “suspect classifications,” groups of people who are likely to be the subject of discrimination.

Republicans, apparently, believe that racism, sexism, and xenophobia deserve to be protected under the very laws designed to prevent them. Or, more likely, they believe that when those values are so ingrained into a political philosophy that they might be labeled “beliefs,” that political philosophy warrants the same protection against discrimination as, say, a religion.

This is a ludicrous position, however. For the record, there is no legal protection against discrimination based on political affiliation or belief. Nor should there be. Political parties exist for the sole and specific person of taking positions others may find disagreeable to the point where they would refuse association.

I’m certainly not in favor of predicating all commercial services on political affiliation. I don’t want my local deli asking me how I voted before they’ll make me a sandwich. But for an event as momentous as the inauguration, at which much fuss will be made over who produced the First Lady’s attire, a designer has every right to refuse service. Just as the NAACP should be able to announce that every single member of the Republican Party is taking action to harm people of color without being accused of “discriminating” against their oppressors.

There is no specific test to determine whether a group legally constitutes a suspect classification, but the Supreme Court has specified some criteria. Political affiliation meets none of them. It is not an immutable trait; you are not born a Republican, you align with the party based on your political beliefs. Nor is it highly visible, unless you choose to put on a button or a bright red hat. Political parties are by definition not powerless within the political process (particularly laughable for Republicans, in light of recent election results) and while members of political parties may be subject to hostility, to characterize that as stigma is too far to stretch. Political ideas and positions are meant to be subject to scrutiny and rejection; that is their nature and purpose.

It’s been common for some time to hear Republicans in daily conversation claim to be victims of discrimination. It is breathtaking, however, to hear a lawmaker as prominent as Lindsey Graham claim victimhood when his party is called out for its own discriminatory practices. That’s a level of rhetorical normalization that verges on dangerous.

Do not allow Republicans to claim they face discrimination. Do not acquiesce when people equate their loathsome defense of racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-gay rhetoric with being born black, or Mexican, or gay, or Muslim. Do not allow oppressors to advance their cause by co-opting the language of the oppressed.

Look at it this way [and indulge the extreme example — it’s meant for illustrative purposes].

Imagine this was Germany in 1936, and Lindsey Graham was seated as a member of the Nazi Party. Imagine the NAACP was a group that advanced the civil rights of Jewish people. Would the Nazis say they were victims of discrimination when that organization gave them poor grades on Jewish rights?

Yes, you may be thinking. They almost certainly would. And that is something you should always remember.

Photo: Flickr user Fibonacci Blue, used under Creative Commons license.

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A Poisoned Oklahoma Town Says Scott Pruitt Should Know about Lead

January 18, 2017 Featured, In The News, Politics / Religion Comments (0) 216

At his hearing today, Scott Pruitt (Donald Trump’s nominee to head the EPA) said he could not testify as to the impact of lead poisoning in children because he hasn’t read the science.

Okay.

It will be safe to move back into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone before it is safe to move back into Picher.

Scott Pruitt’s has been Attorney General of Oklahoma since 2011. Prior to that, he unsuccessfully ran for an Oklahoma Congressional seat (in 2001) and Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor (in 2006).Something else happened in Oklahoma during those years. A town, Picher, was ordered evacuated and abandoned because the history of industrial mining for lead and zinc had left levels of those heavy metals so high that 1/3 of the town’s children had lead poisoning. The order to permanently close the town came in 2006, while Pruitt was running for Lieutenant Governor.

Today, Picher Oklahoma is a ghost town, called “America’s most toxic town,” and one of the worst cases of industrial pollution in the history of the world. Where once there was a population of more than 2,000 residents, now there is an uninhabitable husk. It will be safe for humans to move back into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone before it is safe to move back into Picher.

How can a man who was Attorney General of that state, who ran for Congress and the office of Lieutenant Governor, NOT be familiar with the science of lead poisoning?

Better question: How can such a man be on record as opposing most EPA regulation?

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