I Do Not Think That Means What He Thinks It Means – Bill Maher and Free Speech

This is almost old news at this point, but it still bears commenting on.  Bill Maher has no idea what “Freedom of Speech” means.  Like many of the pundits he criticizes, he thinks that anyone choosing not to listen to him is impinging upon his rights, rather than exercising their own.

First, some background:  Bill Maher made some comments on his show, “Real Time with Bill Maher,” disparaging Muslims.  He was joined by fellow atheist and Muslim-basher Sam Harris, and the two proceeded to claim that all Muslims believe the same things that extremist terrorist groups do, and therefore, all Muslims are evil and violent.  His panel (other than Harris) disagreed, with actor Ben Affleck most vocally objecting:

This exchange naturally garnered a lot of media attention, largely due to Affleck’s celebrity, as Maher himself later noted.  But, in reality, this particular argument differed little from Maher’s usual opinions of Islam as a religion and of the Muslims who practice it.  He has regularly demonized them as being violent, ignoring the fact that the terrorist groups he cites as his example represent a minuscule fraction of the entire Muslim population of well over a billion people worldwide.

But, this additional attention to Maher’s views on Muslims led some students at the University of California to petition to cancel a planned appearance by Maher at their winter commencement ceremony.  Of course, Maher was outraged, arguing that this constituted a violation of his freedom of speech:

To defend himself, Maher referenced comments made during a HuffPost Live interview with Reza Aslan, a religious scholar and author.

 “Bill Maher’s not a bigot. I know him,” Aslan said on HuffPost Live.

“If even my most respectable critic who’s a Muslim says this, what leg does this protest have to stand on?” Maher asked during Friday’s episode of “Real Time” on HBO. “He and I disagree on stuff but he’s always welcome on the show. That’s how it’s done, kids!”

Ignoring the ridiculousness of his defense and its similarity to the “some of my best friends are black” defense offered by many accused racists, Maher is missing the larger point.  It doesn’t matter if he’s a bigot or not (though I would argue he is), and it doesn’t matter if his argument is correct or not (though I would argue it isn’t).  What matters is that he is not entitled to speak at a commencement ceremony and the possible retraction of an invitation for him to do so is not a violation of his freedom of speech.

Journalist Rula Jebreal offered a detailed takedown of Maher’s position regarding Muslims on the same episode of his show in which he called out the Berkeley students (and later in an interview with Salon):

But, as convincing as she was, Maher was unfazed.  He continued to argue that the facts were in his favor.  His belief is based largely on a single poll reporting that a majority of Muslims in Arab countries said that execution is a proper punishment for those choosing to leave the religion.  Aside from the flaws in basing an argument on a single poll, it must be recognized that any poll like this is inherently flawed itself.  Just like polling in this country says that most people go to church every week despite evidence to the contrary, it is only natural that a poll about religious belief in countries ruled by extremist Muslim governments would show respondents agreeing with even the most extreme tenets of that religion, whether they actually believe them or not.  Of course, it is entirely possible that most Muslims do in fact think all heathens should be executed, but it’s not very likely.

However, this argument over the validity of Maher’s position misses the larger point.  No one is limiting his freedom of speech.  He has not been silenced or arrested or punished.  On the contrary, he has a television show which allows him to say whatever he would like to an audience of millions.  His opinion is not being muted, it is being amplified.  And, the students at Berkeley have no obligation to offer him yet another venue for disseminating his beliefs.  In fact, they are free to voice their disagreement with him and tell him that he is not welcome.  To paraphrase Maher, that’s how it’s done.

Maher likes to argue in regards to another section of the First Amendment that freedom of religion is also freedom from religion.  The same applies to speech.  Maher is free to say whatever he likes, and everyone else is free not to listen.  I can’t stop him from voicing his opinion, but I don’t have to invite him into my house.  That is how the First Amendment actually works.  But, Maher disagrees:

Maher noted the irony students at Cal wanted to uninvite someone based on comments they made, given that this year is the 50th anniversary of the start of the Free Speech Movement on the Berkeley campus.

“I guess they don’t teach irony in college anymore,” Maher said.

And, apparently, they didn’t teach the First Amendment at Cornell, where Maher studied.

More Experimentation, Less Reporting, More Dead People

After a high-profile botched execution, as well as numerous others nationwide, Oklahoma is finally doing something to change capital punishment, but what they are doing is the wrong thing.  Many of the problems are due to experimentation with various drugs and their dosages after access to traditional execution drugs has been cut off.  Unfortunately, instead of banning the death penalty, or even putting it on hold until a more humane method can be found (though I would argue that no execution can be humane), the experimentation will continue, but with more drugs and less transparency.

As The Oklahoman reports:

The April 29 execution of Clayton Derrell Lockett lasted 43 minutes and sparked an Oklahoma Public Safety Department investigation, which included recommended changes to protocol.

Lockett was killed with a three-drug cocktail never before used in the United States, and the new protocol allows the state to continue using the most controversial of the drugs, midazolam. It also allows the state to continue using a single IV in the femoral vein, a procedure the state Public Safety Department investigation found to be central to problems that occurred during the procedure. Media witnesses for executions have been cut by more than half, from 12 to five.

Midazolam also was used in two recent problematic executions, one in Ohio and another in Arizona. The new protocol increases the amount of the drug by five times. It also requires the medical professional inserting a single vein IV be trained to perform the procedure. Traditional lethal injections in Oklahoma utilize two IVs, one in each arm.

So, a drug that has been problematic in numerous cases will continue to be used, just in greater doses.  And, just in case things continue to go wrong, fewer than half as many journalists will be allowed to witness the procedure.

Both these developments are troubling.  The drug involved, midazolam, has not been proven to work properly.  So, increasing the dosage, even by five times, does not guarantee that it will now work the way they hope it will.  This means that the next person executed in Oklahoma by this method will be nothing more than a lab rat, as they tweak the procedure to try to find the best way to end a human life.

And, while I suspect no member of the media enjoys watching a person being executed, their role in the process is vital.  It is essential that the state be accountable for how they carry out the sentence they have imposed.  They must answer for mistakes they make, not try to cover them up.  Especially now, when scrutiny is high, they should be making efforts to be more transparent, not less.  Limiting media access shows they are trying to hide something.

The best possible solution to the difficulties in executing people would be to just stop executing people.  But, short of that, it must be done in the most humane way possible, with full transparency and accountability.  And, citizens must be sure their state knows what it is doing.  These new measures prove that they do not.

 

Taking Guns Away from Dangerous People is a Good Thing

There are many things about living in California that frustrate me terribly.  But, things like the gun legislation passed this week remind me that, for all its flaws, my adopted home state still has more common sense than much of the country.

As the AP reports:

California will become the first state that allows family members to ask a judge to remove firearms from a relative who appears to pose a threat, under legislation Gov. Jerry Brown said Tuesday he had signed.

This legislation comes as a response to the shootings near the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California earlier this year.  But, even without the tragedy that provoked it, this is a measure that should have passed long ago.  It is obvious that keeping guns away from people who pose a threat to others is an easy way to save lives.  However, it is unusual that such a common sense solution can become law.

Even pro-gun folks can see the good in this idea, though they of course find a reason to object to any legislation that keeps guns away from whoever wants to own them:

“Our concern is not so much what they intended to do; our concern is with the method they put in place to address people with mental or emotional issues,” said Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California. “We think this just misses the mark and may create a situation where law-abiding gun owners are put in jeopardy.”

But, what Paredes fails to see is how this prevents situations where common citizens, both with and without guns, are kept out of jeopardy.  Isn’t that far more important?  And, even for those aiming to protect the right of gun ownership, it is easy to see that some people simply should not have access to weapons, and that guns in the wrong hands can do a great deal of harm.

There is no reason to believe that this law will do anything to keep guns out of the hands of so-called “responsible” gun owners.  Just like background checks, this is legislation that will affect only those who should not own guns.

And, it is not just mass shootings that could be prevented.  As Don Thompson at Talking Points Memo writes:

Advocates say its greatest use actually might come not in preventing headline-grabbing murderous sprees, but in helping families deal with loved ones who are in danger of taking their own lives or who might be so angry or distraught that they could turn a gun on family members.

When about two-thirds of gun-related deaths are suicides, and homicides involving family members are far too frequent, enabling family members to remove weapons from the home can save lives, both their own and that of a potential suicide victim.

Of course, the actual success of this measure cannot be judged yet.  But, as gun-control advocate Amanda Wilcox says, “It’s hard to know how much it will be used or how much it will prevent.  It only takes avoiding one loss for this to be worth it.”

The NFL is Driving Me Away

There are few things in this world that I love more than football.  I have been a fan and avid watcher of the sport for more than three decades.  Some of my fondest memories involve games watched with my father or with friends.  I have spent my hard-earned money on tickets and merchandise, and countless hours reading about my favorite team and even playing fantasy football.  I have been a loyal consumer of the product that the NFL has been selling, and it has brought me great joy.

So, why are they driving me away?

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I guess I always knew there was a dark side.  After all, this is a sport based on violence and brutality.  Sure, there is strategy involved, but that strategy still involves gigantic men destroying their bodies.  And, the ungodly amount of money involved cannot help but corrupt those who run the league.  But, somehow, I was always able to ignore all of that because I loved watching the game so much.  I have been a loyal fan, willing to turn a blind eye.

But, I cannot pretend to be blind anymore.

Today’s news about Ray Rice is the tipping point perhaps, but it is merely one of many illustrations of just how corrupt the NFL has become.  Like any big business, they are driven by profit, and as long as the money keeps rolling in, they are willing to condone just about any sort of behavior.

Let’s look at the Rice situation.  Here is a player who was seen as one of the league’s “good guys.”  He played well for a team that won the Super Bowl just a few years ago.  But, he committed the fatal error of doing something awful and getting caught.  To the league, the action does not matter nearly as much as the getting caught.  It would be foolish to believe that Rice is the first player to abuse his partner.  He just happened to do it on camera.  So, since the league could not ignore it, they did the least they could possibly do to quiet the critics.  They condemned his behavior and suspended him for 2 games.  They told us just how seriously they take the issue of domestic violence, then suspended Rice for just one-eighth of the season.  And, they were more than willing to sweep the entire incident under the rug.  But, the public, to their credit, would not let them.  After the uproar that followed what was seen as a far-too-lenient punishment, the league vowed to re-evaluate their policy on domestic violence.  They decided that a six-game suspension should apply to any future incidents.  And, again, they were willing to consider the matter settled.  But, today, after more video evidence was leaked, revealing just how brutally Rice attacked his then-fiancée, they were again pressured into action.  Ray Rice was released by his team and suspended indefinitely by the league.  There is a real possibility that he never plays football professionally again.  But, even after all that, Rice still lands on his feet.  He does not face any criminal punishment, and he has millions of dollars to cushion his fall.

And, the NFL comes out on top.  By allowing all the blame to fall on Ray Rice (and absurdly trying to blame his fiancée for being abused), the league gets to keep selling its product to a fan base that cannot get enough.  This is not to say that Rice should not be blamed.  Of course he should.  He should be blamed, he should be punished, and he should go to jail.  But, the NFL should be blamed, as well, not for the assault, but certainly for how they dealt with it.  They did as little as they could, trying to protect themselves and their product.  That is the game they play.  For the product is all that matters.

This single-minded focus on the game and the profits they reap is what allows them to stand behind a team owner in support of a racist team name.  It is what allows them to condemn the use of illegal (but harmless) drugs like marijuana while pumping their players full of dangerous prescription painkillers.  It is what allows them to ignore the countless brain injuries caused by years of players slamming themselves into each other as hard as they can.  It is what allows them to play their game in stadiums owned by billionaires and paid for by public funds taken away from education or infrastructure.  They address only what they are forced to, only those bits of the darkness that creep out into the light.

I love football, but I don’t like it anymore.  When I see a big hit, I don’t cheer.  I wonder whether the player is destroying his brain and his body.  When I see an owner in his luxury box, I think about fans who can’t afford tickets into the stadium they are paying for.  When I see a player doing charity work and photo-ops, I wonder whether he shows the same kind of compassion to his wife.  Yet, despite all this, I still watch, because I love football.

So, why is the NFL trying to drive me away?  How difficult would it be to actually do the right thing?  Why not condemn the owner of the team with the racist name rather than the woman who was beaten by a man who just so happens to be famous for playing football?  Why not embrace efforts to protect the players who make the league possible?  Why not reach out to the fans who spend the money that has made the league so profitable and address their concerns?  We don’t want much.  We just want to watch football without feeling like we’re supporting all the awful things that happen under the league’s watch.  Is that too much to ask?

Is this REALLY where we should be spending all that money?

News came out today that Bill and Melinda Gates have made a $1 million donation to support a Washington state bill that would require background checks on all gun purchases.  On its face, this is great news, as the Gateses join fellow super-rich folks like Michael Bloomberg, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, and Nick Hanauer in donating towards sensible gun control initiatives.  And, while I wholeheartedly support any attempts to mandate background checks and any other measures that would limit gun violence, I was also a bit saddened to realize just how much money is being spent on this nonsensical debate.

Many are celebrating the Gateses donation, including Cliff Schecter at the Daily Beast:

Gates’s fame brings more attention and further legitimizes the initiative in a way that almost nobody else could. Once the Gates Foundation made it a priority to combat malaria around the world in 2000, it brought down deaths due to the insect-borne disease by 20 percent in 11 years, saving the lives of 1 million African children in the process.

Gates has the ability to grab headlines and make an issue go viral with the constant media coverage he receives, and the financial ability, if he wins, to fund similar efforts around the country. His involvement could be the answer to the public health crisis that makes American children 93 percent of those murdered in the 26 high-income countries around the world.

But, in those paragraphs lies the most tragic part of the entire debate, namely that so much money is being spent on it that could better be spent on other things.  The Gates Foundation has already shown the good that can be done by philanthropic billionaires, and its malaria prevention effort has already saved more lives than any gun control effort ever could.  And, sure, the million dollars donated in Washington is dwarfed by the budget his Foundation spends fighting disease, but even that million dollars could do a world of good if spent elsewhere.

But, because of groups like the National Rifle Association, who spend absurd amounts of money fighting any and all efforts to keep guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous people, Gates, Bloomberg, and all the rest are now spending their money fighting against the NRA.  And, the Gateses’ million dollars, along with the $50 million donated by Bloomberg, are still dwarfed by the hundreds of millions spent by pro-gun groups.  The Washington Post details spending from 2010:

2010-expenditures-by-gunissue-nonprofits_50365ef8c7c2d_w587

 

Just imagine what all that NRA money could be used for if not for their obsession with guns.  They could fight hunger and homelessness in America, cure disease, or fund research.  But, instead they choose to spend it on making it easier to buy guns.  What a waste.

So, yes, Gates and his billionaire buddies should be applauded for entering the fight against the gun lobby.  Their efforts, and their money, could potentially save thousands of lives.  It’s just a shame that they have to.

This Man Should Not Have a Gun, and He Is Not the Only One

Georgia has gone all-in on gun rights recently, most notably with their “Guns Everywhere” law that allows guns in churches, bars, libraries, and even airports and schools.  But, even for such a pro-gun state, this is inexplicable.  A man convicted of sexual assault who attempted to rape a woman with his gun has had his right to carry a firearm restored.

Think Progress reports:

A Georgia appeals courts decision upholding the sexual assault conviction of a former cop named Dennis Krauss is difficult to read. According to the record in Krauss’ trial, the former officer was dispatched to the home of a woman who called 911 alleging that her husband had hit her. Rather than arresting the husband, however, Krauss asked the victim to ride with him in his police car. Once she was in his car, “Krauss told the victim that he could take her to jail if he wanted to” or, if she did not want to be arrested, she could have sex with him instead. Krauss’ words, according to the court opinion, were “[w]e can go to the motel or you can go to jail.”

At the motel, Krauss drew his service weapon and told the woman that he wanted to anally penetrate her with the gun. When she refused, and began to cry, “Krauss then pushed her back, pulled off her pants, and had sex with her.” And then he drove her home to the same husband that led her to call the police in the first place.

Krauss was convicted of sexual assault against a person in custody, and this one instance of sexual assault is far from the only allegation against him. According to theAtlanta Journal-Constitution, “[h]is record was filled with allegations of misconduct: that he beat a prisoner so severely the man’s brain bled; that he threatened to fabricate charges against a suspect so he could sleep with the man’s wife; that he pressured at least 10 women for sex to avoid arrest.” The former cop, for his part, is unrepentant. When asked about his sexual assault conviction, he claims that “[t]here wasn’t any crime,” and that “I was dealt a bad hand.”

And yet, in July of 2013, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles restored Krauss’ right to carry a firearm. According to a Journal-Constitution tally, he is one of 358 violent felons who regained these rights over a six year period. That includes 32 violent felons who killed someone, and 44 who committed sex crimes. One man regained his right to own a gun in 2012 after serving a 10 year sentence for child molestation and aggravated child molestation. Some offenders regained their gun rights after being convicted of crimes such as armed robbery, burglary or aggravated assault.

Surely, even the state of Georgia can see the dangers of letting a man like this carry a weapon. This is a man convicted of a violent crime and who allegedly committed numerous others.  He used his gun to coerce a woman into non-consensual sex, and then attempted to violate her with that very weapon.  But, apparently, the right for a manany manto carry a gun outweighs the right of women not to be sexually assaulted.  Rapist, robbers, murderers, and even child molesters are allowed to carry weapons, and that is completely ludicrous.  Each of those 358 violent felons has victimized people, and can now carry a weapon that will allow them to continue their abhorrent behavior.

Courts have ruled repeatedly that violent criminals can have their right to own a gun revoked.  Yet, somehow, women and children still get little protection.  There has been resistance to keeping guns from domestic abusers or people with violence-related restraining orders.  And, in Georgia at least, even serial rapists are free to carry weapons.  Or, is sexual assault not a violent crime?  Are women not people who should be protected?  How about children?

This issue goes far beyond the Second Amendment.  For all the gray area over what the founders may have intended, no one could argue that they thought violent criminals should have weapons.  This issue is just further proof that women, children, and other victims of violent crime don’t matter to GOP lawmakers, at least not as much as guns do.

Tragedy of Errors

The death of Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, was a tragedy.  But, it is also the pivot point of a series of errors, both before and after the fatal shooting, that are tragic in their own right.

Long before Brown took that walk down the street where his body laid for hours after he was shot down, events in his town helped form a culture where an emboldened police force found itself at odds with the citizens it was tasked to protect.

These events began with the segregationist policies that resulted in a town where most of its populace is black and nearly all of its police force is white.  On its own, this may not seem problematic, but couple these demographics with the high unemployment, disproportionate targeting by law enforcement, and greater health risks among the African-American community, and the beginnings of unrest can be seen.

As Steven W Thrasher writes at the Guardian:

The symptoms of structural racism stain America everywhere, but its execution is particularly perverse in places like Ferguson. It’s not just that black drivers are stopped more often for alleged crimes than white drivers, despite the Missouri attorney general’s report that white people break the law more often. It’s not that Ferguson’s police force is 94% white in a town that’s two-thirds black. It’s not even, as Jeff Smith wrote in Monday’s New York Times, that black people – many unemployed – “do more to fund local government than relatively affluent whites” by way of those stops and the subsequent fines.

The real perversion of justice by way of modern American racism is that black people in Ferguson – like black people in the greater St Louis metropolitan area and nationally – are marginalized economically and physically from day one. That is the real looting of Ferguson.

We are consistently twice as likely to be unemployed – and in and near St Louis, “47 percent of the metro area’s African-American men between ages 16 and 24 are unemployed”. Our men are more likely to be convicted and our women are more likely to be evicted. We are more likely to be victims of predatory loans. Our children are twice as likely to have asthma (even before you teargas them). Our babies are twice as likely to die before the age of one – and their mothers are three or four times more likely to die as a result of bearing them.

The people of Ferguson could have used some help, but none was coming for them.  Yet, at the same time, their police force was being showered with fancy new toys from the federal government.  This is how the cops found themselves armed with the same kind of weapons and armor the American military used in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And, like anyone with new toys, they were eager to use them.

The community in Ferguson has suffered.  Then, one of their own was gunned down in the street, unarmed and with his hands up in submission to a police officer who then shot him dead.  And, nothing was being done.  That was simply more than the community could bear.  So, they took to the streets.

It is unfortunate that some used the protests that followed as an excuse for looting and vandalism.  And, a police response to these actions would have been justified.  But, the police were largely occupied by the peaceful protests taking place across the town.  They drove out their armored vehicles and parked them in the street.  They pointed their military-style rifles at protesters.  They threw tear gas.  They arrested protesters and journalists.  And, they fired their weapons at the citizens of the town they served.  And, though the rounds they fired were “non-lethal,” they were certainly still capable of injuring and intimidating the people who wanted nothing more than to show their grief and frustration to the world.

This parade of tragic errors, from arming the police like the army, to the economic and legal oppression of a community, to the murder of a young black man, to looting, to violent suppression of peaceful protest, has brought the city of Ferguson to where it is today.  The question is, what now?

Errors just like these have taken place all across the country, and each of them can be learned from.  We should be motivated to examine policies that have led to segregated towns and the oppression of minorities.  We should examine how we have armed our police and empowered them to use tools of war against their own communities.  We should examine how we respond to peaceful protest.  We can listen to the people of Ferguson and we can change our ways.  Mistakes have been made and tragedies have resulted, but these mistakes do not have to be repeated.  We can learn from them and we can be better.