Cupcake wars

The anti-equality movement in Oregon is now rallying behind this initiative to allow businesses to boycott same-sex weddings. Before getting into the weighty philosophical implications, let’s pause to marvel at the trajectory of the “traditional marriage” forces. A mere ten years ago, the traditionalist side strode the world like a Colossus, deciding presidential elections and amending state constitutions in every corner of the country. Now they are scrambling to preserve the prerogatives of homophobic bakeries.

Schadenfreude aside, I think these issues are somewhat more complicated and nuanced than we acknowledge. I understand the instinctive response, the urge to declare that any form of discrimination should be illegal. But I think it’s worthwhile to unpack the underlying principles here.

On one level, the whole controversy seems mildly ridiculous. It’s difficult to imagine that a conservative florist is really all that traumatized by arranging centerpieces for a gay wedding. But at the same time, I don’t think a gay couple is all that traumatized by having to turn to one of the 99.999% of florists who are gay-friendly (often to the point of being just plain gay). The low stakes make me suspect that these skirmishes are more of a proxy war, sort of like the way the flag-burning dispute waged for years over a grand total of two actual incidents of flag-burning (the second of which was done in protest of flag-burning laws themselves). As with flag-burning, the larger issues implicate ideas of sanctity and dignity that are more significant than the physical facts would suggest.

It is without question an indignity for anyone to be refused even mundane services on the basis of race, gender, creed or sexual orientation. It’s even more galling when the law’s protection is uneven. Under the current state of the law in many places, a Mormon can refuse to serve gay customers but a gay person cannot refuse to serve Mormons. And there have been gay people a lot longer than there have been Mormons.

At the same time, anti-discrimination laws have always offered some zone of protection to the sensibilities of bigots. Fair housing laws have typically incorporated what is known as (in a phrase that’s sort of insulting to the Irish) the “Mrs. Murphy exception,” meaning that someone taking in boarders in a single-family dwelling may people away based on race, gender or other protected status. It seems like a reasonable compromise to me, in the context of disassembling an entrenched system of enforced apartheid, to leave some room for individuals to “opt out” of the overall requirement of equality. Laws that make some concession to human imperfection tend to work better in a pluralist society, and the slow dying out of hard-core racism has turned those exceptions into dead letters over the long haul.

And if you’re still having trouble feeling empathy for the other side, a few thought experiments might help. Suppose you are were asked to cater a Promise Keepers convention, or a reparative therapy conference, or an anti-immigration rally. Wouldn’t you want the right to say no? Wouldn’t you want the chance to refuse to support, even in an inconsequential way, views that you consider wrong? Like it or not, millions of people consider same-sex marriage to be wrong. I think they’re mistaken, and I hope they come around in time, but I recoil at the idea that they should be compelled to take part in an event that they don’t support.

And if the response is “they’re just baking a cake” or “they’re just arranging flowers,” I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. First of all, I think the attitude reflects a bit of class bias. When I was a practicing lawyer, I had the right to refuse to take cases involving arguments I found abhorrent. I would have been outraged if the law required me to advocate positions I found morally objectionable (for example, defending an employer who fired someone for being gay). I don’t think people who cook or bake or arrange flowers are less entitled to withhold their labor.

I also think we need to take the idea of a wedding seriously, since that’s why we’re fighting this fight in the first place. A wedding isn’t just a party; it’s a ritual packed with social and legal and philosophical meaning. Participating in a wedding – whether as an officiant, a guest, or a contractor – does implicate each person in some degree in the larger meaning being constructed. No one should be compelled to take part. Who wants a wedding cake frosted with self-righteous indignation?

I believe – and I suspect those on the other side agree in their heart of hearts – that this will all be moot in a generation. The idea of a business flaunting its hostility to same-sex couples will seem downright bizarre to our grandchildren, a self-destructive fringe. Let them defend their ever-shrinking barricades, saving their cakes and flowers for the righteous. I’d rather have my flowers arranged by a self-respecting queer, as God intended.

Republican vows of dark vengeance are a good sign

For the record, I was in favor of eliminating the filibuster way back in 2005, when Democrats were in the minority. It’s a hideous device that distorts the norms and feedback loops that enable democracy to function. And it’s an inherently conservative weapon, introducing insidious ways for well-connected interests to thwart change without being held accountable. So just as an American citizen, I’m glad the filibuster has been wounded, and I hope soon to see it consigned to the trash heap of bad ideas.

And of course, Republicans now view the application of majority rule – a principle followed by every other legislative body, board of directors and student council in the world – as the latest step on the road to serfdom. But what I find encouraging is that the Republicans are vowing to wreak a bitter vengeance when they are in the majority. I think this is the healthiest thing the party has done in a long while.

The most disturbing and destructive thing about the current Republican Party is not so much its ideology – the party has been moving steadily rightward for more than 30 years – as its fatalism. Since the 2012 election, Republicans have acted like a party that never expects to win another presidential election. Every action – on nominations, on the debt ceiling, on foreign policy – has telegraphed not just a desire to achieve certain substantive outcomes but a zeal to minimize the result of popular elections. The overall effect is unsettling, like a troubled business owner who starts disabling all the smoke detectors and moving his valuables out of the building. It makes on nostalgic for those days when Republicans boasted of their “electoral locks” and “permanent majorities” and Karl Rove bellowed “Look on my poll numbers ye mighty and despair.”

So the very fact that Republicans can imagine a future where they hold the White House and might make Democrats rue the day they embraced majority rule is a step in the right direction. Simply put, I want Republicans to want to win elections. I want them to respond to the normal incentive structures of democratic societies, where you try to achieve policy outcomes by winning elections. And in the years when you don’t win elections, you still have some incentive to preserve the power to govern when it’s your turn. People don’t vandalize homes they expect to occupy one day.


Adoption narratives

During an online discussion of the movie Up, a friend just asked “Why didn’t Carl and Ellie adopt?” I think the dramatic reason is that the story just wouldn’t work if the couple had children. The writers were trying — brilliantly, in my opinion — to paint a portrait of two people who lived for each other, and what happens when one of them is gone. But what’s interesting to me is that the story (to the best of my recollection) never directly addresses the possibility of adoption. This is consistent with how popular culture tends to present stories involving infertility. The characters either behave as if they have never heard of adoption, or consider it in a perfunctory way. It’s similar to the standard dramatic approach toward any unplanned pregnancy, in which the protagonist must (1) acknowledge that abortion is a potentially advisable option and (2) make it clear that she would never under any circumstances have an abortion. The analogous rules for stories involving infertility is that if adoption is mentioned, it must be made clear that this will not really solve the problem.

Why? Because the overriding message in the culture is that while babies are nice, the really, really important thing is that the baby look like you and your spouse. That’s where the magic lies. The entire point of having children is to replicate yourselves, so adoption is just beside the point. (For an extended rant on this topic, see my video Dr. Seuss, adoption and me.) The fixation on biology produces a mindset in which expensive, physically demanding medical procedures are seen as self-evidently better than raising a child who doesn’t share your DNA.

The flipside of this is that stories about adoption are usually placed outside the context of ordinary parenting. The protagonist in these stories is usually single, either a bold individualist triumphing over society’s expectation or an unlikely hero, coming to the orphan’s rescue. These stories can be good, but they really do tend to reinforce the idea of adoption as some sort of exotic hero’s journey, unconnected to the more familiar impulses to build a family with someone you love.

The stories also tend to be weirdly indifferent to whether the hero is really prepared to become a parent. The heartwarming climax of the movie Juno involves a woman adopting a child virtually minutes after divorcing her unfaithful husband. Entranced with the poetry of this conclusion, the movie never stops to ask if it’s wise to adopt an infant in the middle of your divorce. Literally the first question our social worker asked was whether Chris or I had experienced any major stressful events (death of a loved one, loss of a job, moving, divorce) in the past year. If adoption is viewed as an alternative path to parenting, rather than a self-actualization exercise, it’s an important question.

In all these examples, adoption is portrayed as orthogonal to the traditional parenting narrative, either an unsatisfying consolation prize or an individual vision quest. The reality, in which adoption is basically a different platform for running the “start a family” software that the human race has employed for centuries, rarely enters the picture.

It’s OK to say racist things are racist

I was not planning to say anything more about Richard Cohen’s horrendous column, but his follow-up statement was in some ways more maddening than the original piece, and it illuminates part of Cohen’s original problem: the awkward reluctance to acknowledge that racism is racist.

The core problem with the original piece, as brilliantly outlined by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is that Cohen seeks to exonerate “cultural conservatives” from the charge of racism by saying that they simply have “conventional views” that are offended by the sight of an interracial couple or biracial children. As Coates put it:

The problem here isn’t that we think Richard Cohen gags at the sight of an interracial couple and their children. The problem is that Richard Cohen thinks being repulsed isn’t actually racist, but “conventional” or “culturally conservative.” Obstructing the right of black humans and white humans to form families is a central feature of American racism. If retching at the thought of that right being exercised isn’t racism, then there is no racism.

Cohen’s defense, larded with the wounded self-pity so essential to the form, is to say the column has been misconstrued and it’s “hurtful” to call him a racist. As to the first bit, Cohen says he was clearly criticizing the Tea Party’s “extremism” – because, after all, “extremist” and “conventional” are synonymous. But even leaving that aside, notice that Cohen has employed the time-honored tactic of shifting the ground from whether his statement reflected a racist view to whether he himself is “a racist.” That becomes a personal attack, which he can deny in a huff, because it’s rude to call someone a racist unless they have just come from a cross burning, their soot-covered hands still reeking with the smell of gasoline.

This is the same analytical blind spot that caused the whole problem with Cohen’s original piece. His sense of propriety seems to demand that in any discussion of cultural issues, the first priority is to exonerate the white participants from any charge of racism. In this case, the prime directive required Cohen to drape manifestly racist attitudes in a protective cloak of middle American traditionalism, which is patronizing as well as racist.

What’s really glaring here is that Cohen is supposed to be a public intellectual, and he has exactly zero interest in examining the substance of his argument. He does not for one second stop to ask whether he’s been projecting some of his own outdated prejudices onto others and how he came to the conclusion that such prejudices were still “conventional.” Why on earth does someone so uninterested in ideas even want to write an opinion column in the first place?

Conventional bigotry is still bigotry

Everyone is justifiably mocking this Richard Cohen column for saying that people with “conventional views” are not racist, just repulsed by interracial marriage (I’m going to pass over Cohen’s side dish of casual homophobia, because life is just too short). I want to zero in on his use of a framing that’s very common yet totally nonsensical. It lies in contrasting “racist” and “conventional” as though they are mutually exclusive categories. People tend to do the same thing with LGBT issues, arguing that they are not homophobic, merely committed to “traditional” views.

Here’s the problem: a lot of “traditional” or “conventional” views are really racist and homophobic. Indeed, with the arc of the moral universe bending as it does, you will see a fair amount of overlap between traditional, conventional views and bigotry. It’s not that this defense is wrong, it’s just irrelevant to the question at hand. It may give you an insight into the psychological origins of someone’s racist views but the views themselves remain racist no matter how long their pedigree is.  It’s like saying you’re not guilty of shoplifting because you’ve been stealing stuff for years.

The moral incoherence of Jo Jordan

Today Hawaii State Rep. Georgia “Jo” Jordan became the first openly gay or lesbian legislator ever to vote against marriage equality. For the record, I don’t think LGBT politicians are required to support every initiative that benefits the gay community. But any legislator owes her constituents and the public at large some rational explanation for her positions. Rep. Jordan’s stated justifications are, to put it kindly, gibberish.

Rep. Jordan says that she “personally believes” in marriage equality. So we cannot ascribe her vote to a belief that marriage equality is bad public policy. She claims that as a legislator she must “set aside” her beliefs, which is complete nonsense. She’s not serving on a jury; she’s an elected representative of her district. She has the right and the responsibility to make judgments about pubic policy. If she “sets aside” her judgment about what is fair and just, she might as well be consulting a Magic 8-ball.

Nor is she bowing to the will of her constituents, who support marriage equality by a commanding margin. She seems to be deferring to some amorphous sense that the minority of voters opposed to marriage equality have not been “heard.” They have been heard, for countless hours and days and months. It’s possible to listen to someone’s arguments and then disagree with them. That happens every time a vote is taken on legislation. Declaring that an issue must be subject to open-ended, indefinite debate is simply foreclosing the possibility of change.

Legislators have to make judgments. That’s their job. I can accept a legislator casting a vote based on her judgment, even if I disagree with it. I can even understand a legislator taking a position because her constituents feel strongly one way or the other, even if I disagree with the outcome. But I cannot stomach this bizarre meta-analysis, in which a legislator makes decisions without reference either to her own conscience or her constituents’ wishes. That’s a morally incoherent position, born of cowardice and evasion.

The true cost of anti-gay politics

When people talk about issues where the Republican Party needs to engage in “outreach,” attention usually turns to two areas: immigration and LGBT equality. (For the record, I think the focus on these issues grossly underestimates the need for Republicans to have some message for middle-class Americans apart from “suck it up,” but that’s a discussion on for another day).

With respect to immigration, the political math is pretty obvious: Hispanic and Asian immigrants make up a huge and growing percentage of the electorate. By contrast, LGBT equality affects a relatively small and static slice of the population. So I’ve been wondering why this issue seems to resonate, particularly with younger voters, and I have a theory.

Molly Ivins used to say that Southern liberals always start with the issue of race. Once you figure out they are lying to you about race, she said, you start to question everything. I think the same dynamic is now playing out with gay and lesbian people. The things social conservatives say about LGBT people are not just vicious and hateful, they’re demonstrably wrong. They conflict dramatically with the lived experience of anyone who has a gay relative or friend or co-worker. And since social conservatism is intrinsically resistant to empirical correction, they keep saying these things long after the vast majority has stopped believing it.

And once you know they’re lying to you about LGBT people — about your gay cousin or college roommate — you really do start to question everything. That’s what is ultimately so toxic about clinging to positions that can’t be reconciled with reality. It’s not that LGBT people will stop voting for you; it’s that everyone else will figure out you don’t know what you’re talking about.

What music is supposed to do

This video is a perfect example of what I was talking about in yesterday’s post about music. It’s a cover of the Brandi Carlile song “The Story,” done by a woman in memory of someone close to her. I don’t know any of the people involved personally; I ran across the video by accident, but it moved me deeply. No one paid for it, no one marketed it, it doesn’t have an album cover done by a famous artist, but it does what music is supposed to do. It connected me (and thousands of others) to another person’s point of view. In all the hand-wringing about formats, could we at least acknowledge that truth?

Fighting for your right to be a poser

I am fascinated by the ongoing moral panic over social media, and this post on album covers encapsulates a lot of the recurring tropes of the genre. The general point is that the writer misses old-style album covers, which were often works of art in themselves. I can sympathize – I literally used to frame album covers and hang them on my wall, enjoying the almost synaesthestic pleasure of having music represented visually in my surroundings. And although albums still have digital artwork, the association is not as strong or satisfying.

But the writer of the post is not content to express that aesthetic preference. Like most critics of social media, he feels compelled to make broader moral and practical claims, which are just absurd:

The decline of the album sleeve is symptomatic of a deeper crisis. Things aren’t consumed as they were. Rather, they are increasingly given away or stolen. And when something’s value is diminished, so is its worth. As James Heartfield has observed in Mute magazine: ‘The declining value of music also means that it is of declining value to the consumer, so that they will tend to fail as goods that enhance the self-esteem of their purchasers.’ When you don’t pay for something, you don’t take the time to enjoy it. That’s why you come away from a free newspaper website feeling unsatisfied. If you pay for a newspaper, you are much more like to read it properly.


This paragraph illustrates the psychological forces that drive so much criticism of new media. An art form that you enjoy is changing or becoming obsolete, and it’s not sufficient to express nostalgia or regret. The shift in format must be tied to a “deeper crisis,” based on very questionable assumptions. The first giveaway is the use of the phrase “given away or stolen” rather than the less perjorative (and arguably more accurate) term “shared.” I think that was a deliberate choice, because using the term “sharing” would have conjured up a much less threatening picture of how music is consumed in the 21st century. Yes, we have lost album sleeves, but we have also gained almost unimaginable access to new kinds of music, mediated by peers and social networks. I for one immensely enjoy music that is “given” to me by friends. In fact, I would submit that the vast majority of humans are delighted by gifts. What does this guy do on his birthday? Throw all the presents back in his friends’ faces and say “This is worthless to me because I didn’t pay for it.”

I’m not going to comment on the irony of an article on a free website arguing that content on free websites is necessarily unsatisfying, but I will say that I have never experienced the feeling that he describes. Even before the advent of new media, I used to read alternative weeklies that were free, and I never felt unsatisfied with the content for that reason. Conversely, paying 25 cents for the Dallas Morning News never guaranteed an edifying experience. I think the main thing that makes an article satisfying or unsatisfying is the content of the article, not the price tag. But new media scolds have a deep need to devalue any experience that isn’t mediated by traditional commercial transactions.

Psychological research does support the idea of endowment effects, meaning that items you purchase will have more subjective value for you. But I don’t think it really supports this writer’s argument all that well. Music that you enjoy has a lot of intrinsic utility apart from any endowment effects, so if you get some music for free you can redirect your money to areas where the fact of purchase adds more subjective value (like shoes or clothes). Your overall happiness is definitely increased by free music, but new media scolds just can’t bring themselves to consider these sorts of trade-offs.

As illustrated in the quotation from James Heartfield, the core argument here is really about the virtues of being a poser, using music as a way to show off to others. In any other context, this would be recognized as vain, shallow and a little pathetic. But critiques of social media positively revel in this view of culture, in which the content of the work is irrelevant, and its accessibility to more people is a sign of decay rather than vitality.


Money and happiness

I was just trying to explain this concept to my son yesterday, and here it is in handy graph form.


I think there are two equal and opposite mistakes parents can make in talking to their children about money (broadly construed to include things like career choices, etc.). One mistake is to say “Don’t worry about money; do what you love.” This neglects the fact that at the very low end of the curve, lack of money is incredibly stressful. A chronic shortage of money can make ordinary ups and downs like car trouble or  minor injuries into existential crises for one’s entire family. I’m not at all persuaded that the joy of doing what you love – assuming you can find it- overcomes that drumbeat of anxiety and insecurity.

On the other hand, it’s equally wrong to send the message that you should try to maximize your income. The truth is – and quite a lot of well-constructed research bears this out – after a certain point additional income simply does not yield any additional satisfaction. So it’s a terrible waste to go into a career you dislike, merely because it yields more income than a career you would enjoy (stipulating that the second career meets the threshold of enough income to live without constant anxiety).

Money is neither the root of all evil nor an end in itself. A certain amount is a necessity, a bit more makes life more comfortable and pleasant, and beyond that it doesn’t matter all that much.