Hope and Love Last Longer

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Some days the madness in this world takes my breath away.  And some days it simply breaks my heart.  After the shooting at Pulse in Orlando, to say that my heart is broken feels like an understatement.  But more than sadness, there is anger – and an almost desperate need to take action.  To create change.  To promote healing.

But I’ve struggled with what to say or if I should say anything at all.  There’s too much and anything that I have to say is not enough.

Do I focus on drawing attention to the victims?  Young men and women gunned down, many of whom were just at the beginning of their lives.  What could they have accomplished?  What have we missed out on because they were taken from us too soon?  Take a moment to listen to the names of those who were senselessly murdered.  (Anderson Cooper, CNN.)

Should I talk about the attack on the LGBT community?  A community that I feel so personally connected to and yet I sometimes forget how dangerous it is for my friends and loved ones.  I forget how brave you have to be, even in 2016, to be out, to be proud and to still choose love in the face of hate. (Kevin Chorlins, Facebook post)

Is now the time to remind everyone that your words matter?  Every time you marginalize the LGBT community, you feed the hate. Every time you sneer at affection between same sex couples.  Every time you insist that the Bible tells you that someone else’s love in invalid. Every time you use the words faggot or dyke.  Every time you equate homosexuals or transgender individuals with pedophiles and sexual predators.  Maybe you are just joking.  Maybe you are just uncomfortable.  Maybe you think you are doing the right thing.  You wouldn’t pick up a gun and shoot someone you don’t understand, so why are your words important? Your words are seeds that get planted in the fertile soil of someone looking for a reason to hate and to act on it.  Choose them carefully.

Do I get angry and lash out at those who insist on placing blame?  Was religion a factor?  Was the shooter a IS sympathizer?  Is right-wing Christianity as much to blame for the persecution of the LGBT community?  Was the gunman mentally ill? Does any of that even fucking matter?  Call it terrorism.  Call it a hate crime.  It is both.  Blame society, but we are all “society” and if we aren’t working to be a part of the solution, then we are, indeed, a part of the problem.

Is it too soon to pull out the soapbox and talk about gun control? I see the Facebook posts about how President Obama (the Democrats, the Liberals…whoever) want to take away the guns from law abiding citizens as a reaction to this violence.  That is complete bullshit and perpetuating that myth keeps us from making any real progress.  There’s a real debate to be had about reasonable gun control and how we protect the second amendment, but we can’t have it until the lies coming from special interest groups are taken out of the discourse.  (PBS Newshour, President Barack Obama to gun owners.)

Can I bring myself to put all of the negative aside and ask you to choose love?  Is it naive to have hope, even now, that that world can change for the better?  Now, more than ever, we need to remember that “hope and love last longer”. (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tonys acceptance sonnet)

Executive Orders, Gun Control and the Power of Creative Journalism

What is an Executive Order?

Executive Orders have long been a controversial power of the President of the United States.  Their very existence is based on a loose interpretation of the US Constitution’s grant of “executive power” to the President.  While typically used to help manage the agencies under the purview of the executive branch, Executive Orders have stirred controversy throughout history with occasional claims that an order exceeded executive authority.  When you agree with the President, Executive Orders are necessary for the function of the country.  When you don’t, they are a way to work around the will of the people.

Executive Orders have been challenged legally throughout history, with a Supreme Court ruling in 1952 – over an Executive Order signed by President Truman that gave federal control over all steel mills – that found that order invalid because it “attempted to make law, rather than clarify or act to further a law put forth by the Congress or the Constitution.”  (Quoted from Wikipedia, because my research is shallow like that.)

Who cares about Executive Orders?

Apparently today – everyone.  President Obama issued the highly anticipated “gun control agenda”, which included 12 points of proposed legislation and 23 executive orders.  And almost immediately, we hear “TYRANNY!”

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), during an appearance on Sean Hannity’s show on Tuesday night (prior to the official announcement of the proposal), said:

“I’m against having a king. … Someone who wants to bypass the Constitution, bypass Congress, that’s someone who wants to act like a king or a monarch. We will fight tooth and nail and, I promise you, there will be no rock left unturned as far as trying to stop him from usurping the Constitution.”

Let’s take a look at the sweeping gun control changes President Obama has committed to via Executive Order:  (From 01/16/2013 NYTimes.com article, “What’s in Obama’s Gun Control Proposal“)

  • Issuing a presidential memorandum to require federal agencies to make relevant data available to the federal background check system.
  • Addressing unnecessary legal barriers, particularly relating to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, that may prevent states from making information available to the background check system.
  • Improving incentives for states to share information with the background check system.
  • Directing the attorney general to review categories of individuals prohibited from having a gun to make sure dangerous people are not slipping through the cracks.
  • Proposing a rule making to give law enforcement authorities the ability to run a full background check on an individual before returning a seized gun.
  • Publishing a letter from the A.T.F. to federally licensed gun dealers providing guidance on how to run background checks for private sellers.
  • Starting a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign.
  • Reviewing safety standards for gun locks and gun safes (Consumer Product Safety Commission).
  • Issuing a presidential memorandum to require federal law enforcement to trace guns recovered in criminal investigations.
  • Releasing a report analyzing information on lost and stolen guns and making it widely available to law enforcement authorities.
  • Nominating an A.T.F. director.
  • Providing law enforcement authorities, first responders and school officials with proper training for armed attacks situations.
  • Maximizing enforcement efforts to prevent gun violence and prosecute gun crime.
  • Issuing a presidential memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research gun violence.
  • Directing the attorney general to issue a report on the availability and most effective use of new gun safety technologies and challenging the private sector to develop innovative technologies.
  • Clarify that the Affordable Care Act does not prohibit doctors asking their patients about guns in their homes.
  • Releasing a letter to health care providers clarifying that no federal law prohibits them from reporting threats of violence to law enforcement authorities.
  • Providing incentives for schools to hire school resource officers.
  • Developing model emergency response plans for schools, houses of worship and institutions of higher education.
  • Releasing a letter to state health officials clarifying the scope of mental health services that Medicaid plans must cover.
  • Finalizing regulations clarifying essential health benefits and parity requirements within insurance exchanges.
  • Committing to finalizing mental health parity regulations.
  • Starting a national dialogue on mental health led by Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, and Arne Duncan, the secretary of education.

In the interest of giving Senator Paul the benefit of the doubt (I’m feeling generous tonight), his comment was issued prior to plan having been released.  I am completely unable to identify even one moderately controversial item in this list of Executive Orders.  In fact, many of the items in this list are recommendations made by the NRA, such as exploring mental health issues, training first responders and teachers, and enforcing existing laws.

But surely, now that the details have been published, the controversy around the Executive Orders has died down. Oh, contraire.

wtfAnd here is where we get to the creative journalism, also known as mis-reporting facts.  

I surfed around a bit looking at various articles about today’s announcement.  The major news outlets reported the facts accurately, albeit certainly with various slants based on their audiences.  CNN.com seemed to focus on the tough fight ahead for any legislation to pass, while Fox News focused on specific aspects of proposed legislation and their perceived threat against second amendment rights.

But it’s the less scrutinized, small publications that seem to have no issue with blatantly mis-representing information.  If I were the kind of person who actually believed the stuff that I read online, I would be woefully mis-informed.  An article published today by Outdoor Life – admittedly not a highly reputable “news” source – starts with this paragraph:

As anticipated, President Barack Obama unveiled his sweeping gun control package Wednesday, only instead of issuing the anticipated 19 executive orders, he delivered 23 presidential fiats that include an assault weapons ban, outlawing ammunition clips that hold more than 10 bullets and requiring background checks for every gun buyer in America.

Well…no.  That’s simply untrue.  Because I’m still feeling generous, I am going to chalk this up to really poor research and no journalistic integrity.  Because if that’s not the case, then I’d have to believe that this writer is simply lying about the facts to stir up fear – and that can’t possibly be true.  (It’s Outdoor Life – a mediocre, special interest magazine.  Why am I getting so worked up about it?)

Kudos to the reader who had already pointed out to the author that his facts are wrong.  I wanted to add my own comment, but it required me to connect their magazine to my Facebook account and I just don’t care enough to give them access to my personal details.

Sorry.  This post was a bit ranty.

I do typically aim to publish more cohesive posts – but I’m dumbstruck by the negative reaction to today’s gun control proposal, and for now, the best I can do is to rant about the mis-representation of the executive orders.

Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated.

That’s why we do this. That’s what politics can be. That’s why elections matter. It’s not small, it’s big. It’s important. Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy.

That won’t change after tonight, and it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty. We can never forget that as we speak people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.

– President Barack Obama, 2012 victory speech

And that’s why I’m going to continue blogging about the issues – and why, if you are unhappy with the results of the election, I’d beg you to join in the national discussion on the issues.  GET INVOLVED.  Get your facts from multiple news sources.  (Read sources outside the US, even.  I suggest the BBC for daily world headlines.)

I’m going to do my best to stay engaged – and I’m asking you to join me, regardless of whether you agree with me or not.

If Jesus is your guide, I don’t understand your vote for Romney

ImageI struggle to understand why the most devout Christians tend to vote Republican*.  It’s a bold statement coming from someone who uses the atheist label (albeit only for lack of something better) – and I am always reluctant to bring it up publicly.  I don’t have the right.  

I’ve had this conversation with a good friend, who is also a devout Christian, and she’s as baffled as I am.  Through her, I discovered a brilliantly well-written blog, Faithful Democrats, whose tagline is “Because Jesus Wasn’t Kidding About Loving Your Neighbor“.  Not only is there a community of intelligent and articulate Christian Democrats who see the same hypocrisy, but they are snarky, too.  I’m in love.

There are a number of really great posts, such as Voting Biblical Values, Who would Jesus vote for?,  and Buttprints in the Sand.  (That last one isn’t quite as coherent as some of the others, but it cracks me up, so it gets a mention.)

The underlying idea of all of the posts is that Jesus, as he is represented in the Bible, preached about love of your neighbor, providing for the poor, and leaving the passing of judgement on others to God.  Sound familiar?

It’s pointless for me to try to represent Christian values, when it’s already been done more eloquently by actual Christians.  Here’s just a sample:

From Who Would Jesus Vote For?

Giving to “God the things that are God’s” requires promoting a government that serves the good of the people, by lifting up lowly, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless, giving education to the ignorant, and welcoming strangers and foreigners. 

From Voting Biblical Values:

I am voting biblical principles on November 6th.  I am voting for President Obama because he protects the sanctity of life, not just while it’s in the womb, but with health care, education, and a social safety net that insures no one gets left behind and that women will continue to have access to family planning and if need be, safe and legal abortions.  I am voting for President Obama because he supports not just one hetero-normative model for families, but rather stands by families in their beautiful diversity and believes who we love should never stand between us and our civil rights. I am voting for President Obama because he understands care for the environment entrusted to us is not the butt of a joke, but our solemn responsibility.  I am voting for President Obama because Jesus simply was not kidding when he demanded we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, heal the sick, and care for the least of these in our midst. 

 From Jesus Doesn’t Care or Why Liberals Need Christ:

As Christians, it does not matter if a person deserves our help or not.  We are commanded to give it, no matter what.  Jesus did not say, “whatever you’ve done for the least of these who deserve help, you’ve done for me.”  He did not command, “feed my sheep who are hungry through no fault of their own.”  Do.  Love.  Serve.  No qualifications, no exceptions.  (Do you know who did say we should only love those who deserve it?  Ayn Rand).  The reason we do this is because every single person bears the image and likeness of God.  We don’t love people because of what they have or haven’t done; we love the Christ that is within them.

I’ll likely be exploring this topic more in future blog posts, beyond just the role of Christianity in American politics.  While I identify as an atheist, the values I live by are the same as the Biblical values outlined above – and I just consider them to be good moral sense.

 

* To be fair, I don’t even know if this is true – but it is certainly the impression that the Republican party (and their media outlet, Fox News) would like you to believe.

I’m voting for President Obama, and here’s why

Over a year ago, I made a commitment to take responsibility for my part in shaping the future of our country and our world.  Since then, primarily as a result of the upcoming presidential election, I’ve become increasingly frustrated by the lack of honest conversation and debate.  The most important issues that face our world have boiled down to marketing campaigns determined to win at any cost. Compromise and common ground isn’t on the table, because it’s inconvenient when an election is at stake.

I want to argue about the big issues.  I want to talk about climate change, clean energy, religious freedom and perceptions of religious persecution.  I want to debate the benefit of social programs, the necessity of government regulation and the efficacy of our tax code.  I want you to try to change my mind with your facts – REAL facts – and your passionate opinions.  I want to learn and grow and better understand the world that I live in.

To do that, I need to be clear on my own point of view.  I have decided that I’m not going to be keeping my political opinions to myself, even though it’s easier or more polite to do so.  It might be polite, but it’s too dangerous to stay silent.  I want you to understand ME – and I’m willing to be wrong.

I’m a Democrat.

I am a Democrat.  I have known from a very young age that I was a Democrat. Like most individuals, my original values were instilled in me by my parents, but my parents rarely talked about politics.  They talked about equality, understanding and the importance of giving back.  As a teenager, I started to form my own beliefs – far stronger and more passionate than theirs – about my political environment.

As an adult, I’m learning to recognize that the idealist in my heart is much further to the left than the pragmatist in my head.  The pragmatist understands that our world is complicated; that people are complicated.  My opinions are changing. My arguments are evolving.  But my core values continue to align most closely with the Democratic party.

In the coming election, I am voting for President Barack Obama.  And here’s why.

We are not a Christian Country

We are not a Christian country.  We were not founded as a Christian country.  We are a country founded on the principles of religious freedom – freedom to worship as you wish, or freedom to NOT worship.  All religious worship should be treated equally and permitted with equal protection, with limitations only in so far as the actions of the worshippers present a real threat to others.  (Any violent action in the name of religion is violence, not faith.  Hate speech is more complicated of an issue – and I would be happy to engage in debate about the where freedom of speech ends and terroristic threats begin.)

Any argument about federally granted rights or freedoms based on a foundation of “Christian values” should be taken off the table, as the premise is false.  No religious beliefs should dictate our civil codes.

Equality

More than any issue on any platform, I am passionate about equality.  Our Nation must be a nation of equality.  We must not tolerate discrimination in any form based on race, religious affiliation (or lack of religious affiliation), sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Specifically, we must fight for marriage equality.  Same-sex couples deserve the same status and protections and heterosexual couples when it comes to marriage and family.  If same-sex couples cannot be married legally, then marriage should not be a government institution.

Furthermore, we must fight for equality in the workplace to end discrimination based on race, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation. LGBT individuals should be assured that they cannot be fired simply on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  Women deserve equal pay for equal work.

This section is the shortest because I find it to be the least complicated – and on this topic I am firm.  We must have equality.

Healthcare Reform and Universal Healthcare

I believe that we cannot thrive as a nation when greater than 16% of our citizens are without basic health insurance, including almost 10% of children.  (Source:CNN June 27, 2012)  We can’t expect to thrive in the global economy if our citizens can’t meet basic needs.  The United States ranks 29th in infant mortality rate among developed countries.  (Source: CDC NCHS Data Brief – 2008.  More recent articles point to lower ranking, but I couldn’t easily validate the sources.)

I also believe that our current healthcare system – both the health care providers and the insurers – is riddled with fraud and inefficiencies.  (I am not speaking of the quality of care – I don’t feel educated enough to speak to that – but rather of the billing and administrative side of health care providers.)  Patients get bills they don’t understand, insurance statements they can’t decipher, and rarely question the detail.  In a recent personal example, I discovered that my insurance company paid for anesthesia services that I had already paid in full.  I called and had my payment refunded, but only because I questioned it.

We need smart regulation holding the health care and insurance industries accountable for their actions.  While more regulation and government audits are the typical – and costly – solutions, we should consider requiring simplified, itemized billing that can be quickly and easily cross-referenced to insurance and personal payments.  Require transparency so that patients can take the power back in auditing their own health care costs.

I also believe that we do need universal health care.  We need health insurance that is available for all Americans – with no lifetime limits and no coverage refusal for pre-existing conditions.  The only way to accomplish that is with a health insurance mandate, that all citizens must have some level of health insurance coverage.  (If coverage is not mandatory but pre-existing conditions cannot be refused, no intelligent individual would get insurance until they needed it.  It would be like allowing you to wait and get car insurance after you’ve already been in an accident.)

I am not going to pretend that the Affordable Care Act is perfect.  I can’t even pretend that we’ll get it right the first time.  It is a program that requires the very best minds, a great deal of compromise and a willingness to evolve, re-evaluate and adjust.  But it’s worth it.

I also believe that education and prevention must be a part of our national priority.  Prevention of childhood obesity, education on smart nutritional decisions, and incentives for healthy decisions should all be considered to lower overall health care costs and increase the health of our nation.  (This is said as someone who recognizes her own decisions are often not healthy ones.)

Pro-Choice and Pro-Life

I very rarely talk about my views on abortion because they are complicated, very personal and evolving.  Even as an idealistic, hardcore Liberal teenager, I considered myself anti-abortion and pro-life.  I had a hard time reconciling that with my otherwise very liberal views, but there it was.

Two things happened that made me reconsider my position.  First, I had an unexpectedly candid conversation with someone in my life whose opinions I hold in high regard.   My assumption had always been that she, too, was pro-life – and I discovered that I was very wrong about that.  She felt strongly about a woman’s right to choose, and felt as strongly about the beauty and joy of bringing life into the world.

The second thing that happened was an even more personal conversation with a very dear friend.  We were, in fact, discussing our political opinions – and with her, I felt comfortable enough to disclose that I was conflicted on the topic of abortion.  She shared with me that when she was fifteen, she was raped and discovered she was pregnant.  Suddenly that decision was very real, and I couldn’t imagine having made a different decision than she did in her situation.

I also have complex feelings about a woman’s right to choose versus a parent’s right to choose.  (Do fathers have rights to decide the fate of an unborn child?)  I absolutely understand the argument that decisions about a woman’s body should be hers, and hers alone, to make.  But I feel like there’s another side to the story.

In the end, I have come down on the side of being pro-choice, albeit with a very strong advocacy for personal pro-life decisions.

Personal Responsibility and Social Programs

The conversation about “personal responsibility” always seems to be shaped as an argument between those that believe in personal responsibility and those that believe in social protections like welfare.  I believe strongly in both.

I believe that I am responsible for my own actions and decisions.  I accept the consequences and I earn the rewards.  I am the master of my own destiny.

I also acknowledge that I did not achieve anything on my own.

I was born into a middle class family in a safe neighborhood.  I had two well-educated, intelligent, healthy parents.  I had all of the privileges that come with that.  And even still, our family relied on unemployment assistance when my father lost his job, and federal and state student loans and grants to pay for college.  I took opportunities presented to me and I made the most of them – but the important thing is that I had the opportunities in the first place.

Programs like unemployment assistance, Welfare, Medicaid, Head Start programs, and Pell grants are not entitlements.  They are opportunities and they are protections for citizens at their most vulnerable.  It is arrogant of any one of us to think that we are above needing such protection.  Catastrophe could happen tomorrow that would put me in a position to rely on welfare.  And I will be grateful that it is there.  In the meantime, I am willing to pay my taxes to fund it.

It is not socialism to believe that my taxes should go to programs that protect our most vulnerable citizens.  It’s reality.  Without social programs, we continue to build a greater divide between those that have and those that do not have, destroying opportunities for future generations.   That divide will destroy us.

With that said, these programs aren’t perfect.  People will take advantage of the system.  Others will fall through the cracks.  The system should be more efficient and the outcomes could be better measured.  Programs that are not succeeding in meeting their objectives need to be discontinued, in favor of those that are making an impact.  These are programs that need thoughtful innovation and improvement – not thoughtless discredit and destruction.

Fair and Balanced Tax Code

Reducing taxes for the wealthiest Americans, providing enormous tax breaks for corporations, providing loopholes that allow corporations and individuals to avoid taxes by moving money off shore and eliminating things like capital gains taxes does not improve the economy.  Increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans by 2% will not cause those individuals to stop building businesses and making more money.  Instead, it will allow the federal government to spend more on developing infrastructure to support their business or providing educational opportunities to the citizens that will work in their businesses.

(For the record, Atlas Shrugged remains one of my top ten favorite books of all time.  I love the celebration of individualism – and yet I can recognize idealized fiction versus reality.)

I am happy to pay my share of taxes, just as I’m happy to take advantage of the roads and bridges, I’m grateful for the protection offered by our military, and I was proud to accept federal funding for my college education.

Investment in Clean Energy and Green Technology

To say that investing in clean energy and green technology is waste of money – because there’s plenty of coal and gas that we can continue to mine and drill for – illustrates a disregard for the long-term future of our planet and our species. We cannot continue to use the natural resources like coal, petroleum and natural gas as though there is no end to the supply or no repercussions to the health of our planet.  I care what happens 100, 200, or 1000 years from now.

I believe that the only way to break our bad habits, however, is to subsidize the development of better ones.  We need investment in clean energy and green technology.  We may need subsidies, as well, because coal and natural gas will continue to be cheaper than alternatives until those alternatives reach mass acceptance.

Given the current state of our federal budget, can we afford to spend the necessary money on research, development and subsidies?  I honestly don’t know, but I don’t know that we can afford not to, either.

As a coal miner’s daughter, I also very personally understand the argument that further regulation on coal will cost coal miners their jobs.  It will.  And that hurts.  I won’t lie and say that it won’t impact lives.  Every decision made impacts lives. So let’s put measures in place to re-educate coal workers to work for green technology.

Regulation of Financial Systems

I wanted to provide a reference to start this off that succinctly explained the stock market crash of 2008 in a non-partisan manner, but it is surprisingly (or sadly, not surprisingly) hard to find.  Here’s a timeline, but it’s thin on context.

The bottom line is this: Lenders started to realize that they could loan money to people who couldn’t afford to pay it back, but play with the numbers to make the risk look less…risky.  And it all came crashing down.  (Wow, that’s oversimplified.

Since 2008, it seems that we hear something new every day that is happening in our financial systems that sounds like fraud, but isn’t technically illegal.  Our financial security is in the hands of well-educated individuals who are incentivized to play a numbers game – not to ensure that our futures are secure.

I want that to stop.

I want intelligent regulation on our financial systems to dictate the level of risk that they are allowed to take when it comes to global financial stability.  I want loopholes to be closed and fraud to be prosecuted as fraud.  I want individuals held accountable for their decisions, rather than being allowed to walk away from a decimated corporation with their own wealth in tact.  And I realize that this is all extremely complicated – and I want the most intelligent, Wall Street-independent and morally upstanding economists tasked with figuring it out.

I also believe we need to reform our financial system at the lowest levels.  We need to help citizens to live within their means.  We are a nation in debt, and we are a nation of citizens in debt.  Credit card reform that limits the amount of credit card debt an individual can accumulate, as well as limits on the amount of interest that can be charged are critical. Education that focuses on money management and the reality of debt should be encouraged – both for young people and for any adults who find themselves looking for help with bankruptcy proceedings.

I am voting for President Barack Obama.  That’s why.

There are more issues on the table – and more issues that I would love to discuss and even argue about.  Intelligently.  Respectfully.  And with the goal of finding compromise.  If I haven’t talked about it here, it may be that I’m not not passionate, it may be that I’m not as educated as I’d like to be about it, or it may be that I simply forgot to mention it after the eight pages I’ve already written.

I ENCOURAGE comments of the respectful variety.