Friday, February 10, 2012

Individuals should take precedence over institutions when it comes to a health matter like contraception

By Marc Jampole

Is it a matter of women’s rights or is it a matter of religious freedom?

That question has grown to become one of the major concerns of the mainstream news media since the Obama Administration mandated that contraception be covered in all health insurance policies.

The answer to this question of definition determines where you stand on what the Obama Administration did: If you think we’re talking about women’s rights, then you likely believe the Obama Administration did the right thing. If you think we’re talking about religious freedom, you likely believe it’s illegal for the Obama Administration to make Catholic organizations cover birth control in health insurance policies they offer employees. Look at the coverage in Google News and you’ll see that Democrats, women’s organizations and progressives such as Rachel Maddow are talking about women’s rights and Republicans and right-wing pundits like Rush Limbaugh are talking about religious freedom.

Both sides have a point.

So what do we do when two fundamental rights come into conflict?

We could go with majority rules. An overwhelming majority of Americans have used birth control, support birth control and think that health insurance should cover it. In fact among Catholics, a majority support birth control. As Gail Collins, Rachel Maddow and others have pointed out, two-thirds of Catholic women currently use birth control and virtually all have used some form of birth control at some point in their lives. The surveys show that the only group among Americans in which a majority is not in favor of birth control is the right-wing Christian evangelical movement, who unfortunately now sets policy for one of our only two political parties and thereby defines the terms of virtually every debate involving social issues in the United States.

Even including the overly loud voice of the Protestant right, majority rules would dictate that the Obama Administration made the right move.

Of course, at the heart of the very idea of rights is the principle that the majority can’t bully a minority. But in this case it’s a minority wanting to bully the majority.

Both those who are in favor of all health insurance policies covering contraceptives for women and those against it focus their attention on individual institutions or persons. They often forget to mention the third party in the discussion, and that’s society.

As a matter of public policy, the government is charged with securing the public health. We can judge success in this matter by the health of our citizens and by the funds we must allocate for health care. As measured by people or by money, there can be no doubt that contraceptives help to promote a healthier society. Birth control prevents two major factors in health problems healthcare costs: unwanted pregnancies and venereal diseases. Birth control also leads to fewer abortions.

When the government considers public policy issues, it often has to weigh conflicting rights. Some examples include water rights policies, environmental standards, rules for eminent domain actions and product safety standards.

In the case of covering contraception, the public policy decision looks like a no brainer: something that serves the public interest by leading to a healthier population and lower health costs is supported by an overwhelming majority of citizens. The policy favors a right central to the lives of individuals versus the right of an institution to avoid paying for something considered standard by most individuals and institutions.

I don’t believe there is any religious freedom involved in setting a standard for public health, which is all the Obama Administration did. In fact, a decision to exempt religious organizations might have infringed on the religious freedom of the women using birth control.

But even if a religious freedom were involved, it would be superseded by public policy, just as the right to marry more than one woman was superseded by public policy in the last century, and just as the right to believe in the power of prayer ends as a matter of law and public policy when parents deny medical treatment to a child for religious reasons.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Forget about racism. By denigrating food stamps, Newt attacks all poor people regardless of race

By Marc Jampole

Newt Gingrich has persisted in calling President Obama the “food stamp” president, despite the fact that more people went on food stamps during Bush II’s presidency than during the Obama presidency.

What I find interesting is how many people, both conservative and progressive, assume that the statement is inherently racist. And behind the assumption of racism stands two other assumptions:


  1. That African-Americans get food stamps disproportionately (which is not true according to all statistical evidence: about 30% of African-Americans are poor and about 30% receive food stamps).


  2. That getting food stamps is a bad thing.

Here is sample quote from this morning’s National Public Radio report on Gingrich’s campaign against food stamps: “Obama is big food stamps. Romney is little food stamps. But they both think food stamps are okay.”

But how can food stamps not be okay if one out of every seven Americans depends on them for their sustenance? Something involving 14% of the population is normal, and normal is okay.

What’s not okay is the state of the economy which has led to so many people meeting the very strict requirements for receiving food stamps.

Newt is careful to make sure that his labeling of Obama as the ”food stamp president” comes inside statements related to the sad state of the economy. In fact, he uses food stamps as the primary measure of economic well-being, not unemployment, nor average wages, nor per capita gross domestic product. Thus the negativity we feel about the recession focuses not on measuring economic weakness but on measuring the help the government gives to allay the misery that the recession has caused.

Gingrich attaches a negative moral value to receiving food stamps and to giving them as well, since the giver, i.e., the federal government, serves to enable the recipients in their moral failure. This “blame the victim” mentality has had a place in conservative propaganda ever since the late 1960’s when the news media’s coverage of the civil rights movement made people believe, wrongly, that the victims of poverty were primarily people of color.

Besides revealing hard hearts, Gingrich, Santorum and their ilk fail to realize that food stamps represent a tremendous injection of cash into the economy since every penny given to food stamp recipients is spent, primarily on American products, since the United States is still the bread basket of the world, the greatest agricultural nation in history.

Conservatives would rather we cut taxes on businesses, which they incorrectly argue will give businesses more money to create more jobs. The trouble with cutting food stamps so we can cut business taxes is that with fewer people spending food stamp money, the market will be smaller and businesses will have less reason to invest. It’s unimaginable that every cent of a tax cut would go to creating more jobs and nothing to greater profit to the business owner. Past tax cuts suggest that much of the cut goes directly to the owners and shareholders.

But that’s not what people are thinking about when Gingrich slams food stamps and Democrats react.

The more Newt harps on the “food stamp president” issue, the more ingrained in people’s minds becomes the idea that food stamps recipients are bad. The Democrats, progressive and African-American leaders all do themselves a disservice by playing Newt’s game because it’s win-win for Newt. Gingrich doesn’t risk many votes by denigrating food stamps, but he does set the terms of the conversation, and one of those terms is the idea that receiving food stamps is both a moral failure and a drag on the economy.

My advice to progressives: When conservatives start to moan about food stamps, forget the race card and directly accuse them of blaming the victim. Say something like, “You show no sympathy for the victims of the recession. We’re talking about meeting basic food needs. We may disagree about how to the improve the economy and create more jobs but how can we possibly disagree about the need to keep fellow Americans from starving?”

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Values.com looks devoid of ideology, but proposes a secular religion that accepts the status quo

While channel-surfing last night I stumbled on a TV commercial selling the idea that people should say ”please” and “thank you.” After the Miss Manners seminar, the ad sends the viewer to the Values.com website.

The values.com website is a hodgepodge of feel-good slogans and stories, sponsored by something called The Foundation for a Better Life (FBL). Here is how the Values.com website describes the foundation: “The Foundation for a Better Life began as a simple idea to promote positive values. We believe that people are basically good and just need a reminder. And that the values we live by are worth more when we pass them on.”

Besides the website, FBL pays for feel-good, values-based TV and radio spots, billboards, podcasts and a message board for inspirational stories and quotes. The website never mentions who funds FBL, but to its good, at least it states explicitly that FBL neither accepts contributions nor charges membership fees nor gives grants to other organizations. It claims not to have any religious or political affiliation. The only affiliation mentioned at the website is with The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation (RAKF).

On to the RAKF website, which describes RAKF as “inspiring people to practice kindness and pass it on to others.” It’s another feel good website with stories and quotes about kind acts, ideas about how to make people kinder in the workplace, at home and elsewhere, a blog on kindness and links to “kindness resources,” which include other organizations and more anecdotes of people being kind to others. Although a 501(c) 3 organization, RAKF is privately held and funded; accepts no donations, grants or membership dues; and does not provide financial assistance to individuals or organizations.

Only by investigating on the Internet a little bit did I discover that both foundations are funded one hundred percent by Denver right-wing billionaire Phillip Anschutz, who Forbes describes as one of the richest people in America. Besides oil and real estate, Anschutz owns a number of professional sports teams.

On its surface, these two organizations and their websites are innocuous enough, spreading a non-ideological and homogenized love and goodness to the planet. A careful analysis, however, reveals that in fact these organizations lend subtle support to the current inequitable economic and social realities of the United States by distracting people from addressing real problems.

Let’s start our analysis by taking a look at the list of 88 values that Foundation for a Better Life lists at the Values.com website:

1. Achievement
2. Ambition
3. Appreciation
4. Believe
5. Believe In Yourself
6. Caring
7. Character
8. Charity
9. Class And Grace
10. Commitment
11. Common Ground
12. Compassion
13. Compliments
14. Compromise
15. Confidence
16. Courage
17. Courtesy
18. Dedication
19. Determination
20. Devotion
21. Do Your Part
22. Drive
23. Education
24. Encouragement
25. Equality
26. Excellence
27. Foresight
28. Forgiveness
29. Friendship
30. Generosity
31. Giving Back
32. Good Manners
33. Gratitude
34. Hard Work
35. Helping Others
36. Honesty
37. Honor
38. Hope
39. Humility
40. Including Others
41. Ingenuity
42. Innovation
43. Inspiration
44. Integrity
45. Justice
46. Kindness
47. Laughter
48. Leadership
49. Learning
50. Listening
51. Live Life
52. Live Your Dreams
53. Love
54. Loyalty
55. Making A Difference
56. Mentoring
57. Motivation
58. Opportunity
59. Optimism
60. Overcoming
61. Passion
62. Patience
63. Peace
64. Perseverance
65. Persistence
66. Practice
67. Preparation
68. Purpose
69. Reaching Out
70. Respect
71. Responsibility
72. Right Choices
73. Rising Above
74. Sacrifice
75. Sharing
76. Smile
77. Soul
78. Sportsmanship
79. Spread Your Wings
80. Stewardship
81. Strength
82. Teaching By Example
83. Team Work
84. True Beauty
85. Trust
86. Unity
87. Vision
88. Volunteering


It’s a strange hodgepodge of etiquette, Dale Carnegie-style positive thinking, ideas shared by all religions, ways to “play by the rules” and notions that tend to support the establishment no matter what it is. These are all general terms that most of us would agree should form the basis of decision-making. We should seek “excellence” and “justice,” and we should “do our parts” and make “right” choices.

But the fight to preserve these “values” is as bogus as the campaign to “support our soldiers” was during the early phases of the Iraqi War. Everyone supported our soldiers, even those opposed to the war. What action can an individual in our post-industrial society take that doesn’t support soldiers, except maybe not holding their jobs while they’re off fighting? What exactly did pasting a bumper sticker on your car do to support the soldiers? At its heart, “support the soldiers” was a shill and a code word for “support the war” and everyone knew it at the time.

In the case of these 88 values, the code is more subtle. These values can apply to anything. A dictatorship or state ruled by one party would be just as likely to list all these values as a representative democracy would. Virtually all these values (with the exception of “true beauty”) would come in handy in training an elite force to torture and engage in illegal assassinations. Many of these values would make a perfect substitute for “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which means “work makes you free” in German and was hung as a sign over the entrance of several Nazi concentration camps. Those in favor of a woman’s reproductive rights are equally able to find solace in contemplating these values as those who wish to restrict these rights.

The amorphous quality of these values, and of the concept of kindness as well, make the campaign for “values” and “kindness” mere shills for maintaining the status quo, which as people are discovering is a fixed game in favor of those who already have money and power, a game which 95% of the population is currently losing badly.

By creating campaigns, the organizations take our minds off of our real problems such as addressing global warming and creating a more equitable society and economy. And why would Mr. Anschutz not want to get our minds off these problems, since dealing with them might upset the current status quo, which has generously rewarded Mr. Anschutz even as it has hurt the thousands of workers who serve the food or clean the floors in the venues where his many professional sports teams play.

From the standpoint of Mr. Anschutz then, isn’t it better if college students and adults are engaged in programs to support “values” and “kindness” than in organizing in favor of unions, a higher minimum wage or better environmental regulations? And doesn’t the spread of all these feel good stories make people feel better about their current circumstances?

The idea that we should all rally behind the need to “believe in yourself,” “volunteer” and “practice” unifies the country in an artificial way, like flag-waving does. But it’s a false unity that serves merely to support the way things are now because it’s not a real action that we’re united behind, such as the real action of boycotting the Komen Foundation. By replacing real-good action, these campaigns distract us from addressing real problems. By serving as a distraction, Anschutz’ organizations quietly support the economic and social status quo. Just as “support the troops” was code for “support the war.” So is the values and kindness campaigns really campaigns to support our current unfair system.