Thursday, July 19, 2012

You Didn't Tell the Truth About That


The thing that is going to depress me the most when President Obama hands over the keys of the White House to Mitt Romney in January isn’t that the American voters chose one set of government policies over others, it will be because they chose to believe in lies rather than truth. Lies backed up with millions of dollars worth of media exposure, to be sure, but lies nonetheless.

It will also prove just how bad Democrats are a politics, explaining their positions and policies to others, and how misplaced their priorities are. Because let’s face it, if Democrats, Liberals, and Progressives are unable to turn demonstrable facts that support their positions and policies (or to expose the demonstrable falsehoods used by the other side) into votes or material support, then there isn’t any reason to continue participating in political governance of this nation.

Right now, Republicans could run a dead cat for the office of President of the United States of America, and have a floor of at least 40% of the vote.

Democrats, on the other hand, can run the most likeable candidate in recent memory, who has been the most demonstrably effective President of my lifetime in facing a set of the most complex challenges - including an opposition party in control of the Supreme Court, a majority of the states, and the House of Representatives that is no longer interested in participating in the actual business of governing – and lose.

I’ll say it even more clearly: if Barack Obama was a member of the Republican Party with the record he currently has, we wouldn’t even know the name of the other party’s nominee. And that’s if they had a good nominee. This year, the Republicans are running Mitt Romney for the office, and there are a lot of Republicans who would have rather nominated a dead cat. If the parties were reversed, and Mitt was the Democrat, political scientists and pundits wouldn’t talk about a “landslide” in November 2012, they’d be talking about “running up the score.” Instead, right now this election is a coin flip.

Why is this happening? I’ve been saying for years the biggest problem is that Democrats refuse to cultivate a base like the Republicans. The GOP paid their dues over the last two generations and set the ground work. They pulled the most fanatic base voters into their coalition, so they’d always have volunteers to show up for their causes. They focused on capturing the suburban vote in local elections, so they could make their base the place where most Americans lived and aspired to live – and lived in a constant state of social alienation, fearful bunker mentality, and receptiveness to advertising. This ensured they would always control the conversation. They focused on state elections, so they’d always control the mechanisms that mapped the Congressional districts, assigned the Electoral Votes, set election rules, kept voting roll records, and counted the votes.  

But the second biggest problem is that Democrats, Liberals, and Progressives just don’t know how to tell the truth or expose the lie. Right now, the biggest one you’ll hear about is the “You Didn’t Build That” lie. That is the quote you will hear that came out of an Obama speech about the American system. It is an expression of how that system should work, and how most people should know this system works, and how – based on the long and messy history of the United States of America – how that system, when it works, makes America the most dynamic economy in the world. The speech sets up a choice between our current economic woes and the system not working, and the system starting to work again and our nation getting out of this funk. Here’s the idea:

You pay taxes. All those taxes, pooled together, that’s a whole lot of money. With that money, the government provides essential services and can invest in big projects that provide a material benefit to the free enterprise economy that the free enterprise economy is either unable or unwilling to provide for itself. Such services and projects create and expand opportunity to participate in the marketplace far beyond just those few individuals with generational capital. That expansion of opportunity provided the foundations of almost every small business and an establishment and flourishing of a dynamic middle class unprecedented in world history.  

What types of services and projects are we talking about? First and foremost, we’re talking about the US military, which defends the nation from international actors who would attempt to invade and take the fruits of everyone’s labor as spoils of war. Next up, we’re talking about infrastructure like roads, bridges, railroads, airports, levees, harbor dredging, postal service, power grids, radio towers, the satellite network, and the internet – all projects which create and expand access to markets. Then you’ve got the regulatory systems, law enforcement, fire protection, and environmental protections that keep internal actors from stealing the fruits of your labor, denying you your basic rights without due process of law, or poisoning your water, food, and air. You’ve got disaster response and mitigation so you and the fruits of your labor aren’t washed away, or if they are you’ve got subsidized insurance that helps cover the losses and rebuilds the communities and marketplaces in which you participate. You’ve got public education so no matter what economic status you are born into you have some sort of access to basic knowledge acquisition that may help you improve your opportunities to participate in the marketplace. You add to that some sort of social safety net for those who have not benefited from the marketplace, not only out of moral obligation to those less fortunate than us, but because providing some sort of relief to the less fortunate is far less disruptive to the market than the alternative.

That right there? That’s the deal. Every nation or community that has engaged in some form of the above system to expand opportunities and markets has experienced wealth generation greater than the tax investment they made.

Our particular version, our particular American system, has done very well for many of us. Membership has its privileges. If you start a business in this nation – from a taco truck in New Orleans to Bain Capital in Boston - and experience success, a good part of that is because you assumed some risk, worked hard, had a few lucky breaks, and earned your reward. No one should take that away from you. But you were also able to do all of that because of this systematic foundation that was already set up for you. It is a very expensive foundation, built on trillion of tax dollars and trillions of hours of work from previous generations of Americans. That system still has expenses, and now that you have your success, you’ve got to chip in your fair share to maintain it.

But if you started your own successful business, you didn’t build that system. You just take advantage of it. This is not difficult stuff to grasp. Part of your success is due to the fact that you started your business in the United States of America. Waving your flag on the 4th of July is pretty and all, but participation requires more than that. Membership has its privileges, to be sure, but membership also comes with dues.

It ain’t a perfect system. It has excesses, winners and losers and those it takes advantage of. Politics should be about how to manage that system effectively. Unfortunately, some politics want to deny such a system exists. That’s why the President’s statement “you didn’t build that” is going to be taken so far out of context that it might as well be in the next Busta Rhymes music video. That’s the lie.

Because Republicans want to deny such a system exists. They want business owners to think they somehow hacked their shops out of the wilderness and gained success by the sweat of their brow alone. They want to pretend this system of opportunity expansion and market access doesn’t have to be paid for, especially by those who benefit the most from it. According to them, the people who see this system for what it is are anti-American traitors who follow communism, socialism, and sharia. The problem is, there are so many people in this country who want to believe that up-from-the-bootstraps fantasy, this isn’t a difficult sell. There are simply so many people who think this system either should not exist, that it is too expensive, or that it somehow holds them back rather than provides them with opportunity.

Of course, I’m wondering how they (the businesses) will find customers if they (the customers) don’t have roads to drive on to get to their (the business owners') places of business.

And so Republicans will lie and run ads again and again with Obama saying “you didn’t build that,” because the President of the United States told the truth about how America works, about how making it work costs money, and because there are enough people who can’t handle that truth who will show up on election day in November.

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

New Orleans City Council Changes

Expounding on yesterday’s post, here’s how changing election rules could improve things in New Orleans.

Right now, there are seven members on the city council representing a population of over 350,000. Five of these seats are determined by districts drawn in traditional ways – generally encompassing large areas with tentacles reaching out to snag and concentrate certain neighborhoods or voting blocs. Two of the seats are considered “at large” seats, and make up the President and VP of the Council.

Here’s how the 5 district seats are determined: all qualifying candidates in a district participate in a single “non-partisan” primary. If no candidate wins 50%+ of the vote, a runoff is declared for the top two vote recipients. This means the city basically has to pay for two elections, and turnout can vary widely. The Mayor is elected in a similar way, and there will be a referendum in November allowing voters to move the At-Large seats to this type of election as well.

Under the existing rules, candidates for the most important positions on the City Council ran in the same election – every voter got two votes, and the two top vote recipients get elected, provided they captured 25%+ of the vote. If they didn’t get to the magic number, runoffs were employed. Again, that’s setting up another election, changing voter turnout, and forcing two-time voters to decide between candidates who may not have captured a quarter of the first time voters.

The new proposal changes that slightly, basically splitting the At-Large field, requiring a primary election followed by a runoff if no one gets 50%+ in the primary. Still two elections, and now candidates will have to declare which “at large” seat they’re running for. Or something. It is “better” in that it makes more sense than the current threshold of 25% support. Here’s what I would do to eliminate the runoff elections and increase the value of every citizen’s vote. It would require uses of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) and Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) representation.

One: Move the Mayoral election to IRV. This means when citizens vote for Mayor, they list their first choice as #1, their second choice as #2, their third choice as #3 and so on. If their first choice candidate doesn’t get enough votes to win, that candidate is eliminated, and the vote goes to their second choice. If the second choice doesn’t win, the vote goes to their third choice, etc. This continues until one candidate gets over 50% of the vote. One election, one turnout, one conclusion.

Two: City Council elections become MMP. This requires doubling the number of district seats on the City Council, and giving each voter two slates within their district election. The first slate is the actual candidates from that district. Again, IRV is employed to determine who will represent the district outright.

The second slate exists for all political parties within the city, and the voter can cast one vote for their party of their choice. It does not have to be the same as the party their candidates belong to.

When the votes are tallied, the five district seats go to the five district winners. The other five seats are assigned based on the total proportion of votes by party. Those proportions would include the district winners.

For example, this being New Orleans, let’s say that all 5 district seats went to Democratic candidates. Under the current system, that’s 100% of the representation. Under the MMP system that’s only 50% of the representation.

The Board of Elections then looks at the number of party votes from across the city. Let’s say that 70% of voters, city-wide, cast their party vote for the Democratic Party, 20% cast their vote for the Republican Party, and 10% cast their vote for the Green Party. This would mean you add 2 Democrats, 2 Republicans, and 1 Green Party representative to fill those other 5 city council seats.

Now, I know what you’re saying – that puts a lot of power in the hands of Party level decision makers. But have you ever been to a meeting with those decision makers, locally? A few extra bodies in the room would be enough to change the whole decision making process – this is the local level we’re talking about, where your voice and participation can have the greatest affect. Setting up a system in this way gives you more access to your own governance, not less. Set the rules for having an official political party at a reasonable level, and you increase the diversity of your political options instead of shoehorning them into two lackluster choices.

Pursuant to that, another advantage is that the political diversity can now lead to results in government. How many Republicans or Green Party followers are simply disenfranchised at the local level in Orleans Parish? While your partisan mind might thing “good riddance,” consider your own disenfranchisement at the state and local levels in mostly Republican Louisiana. The point of the exercise is to make your vote count and your representative government more responsive. You can’t do that sort of thing without guaranteeing the rights of others who disagree with you.

As far as the At Large seats are concerned, I think setting up a 10 member council would eliminate the need for them. Elected officials could appoint a council President Pro Tem and VP out of their own membership at that point. Since so many “At Large” seats came about as a result of redistricting and segregating neighborhoods, I wouldn’t shed one tear to consign that concept to the dustbin. .

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Taxation Without Representation

When (not if) the Democrats get crushed in November’s elections (that’s what happens when you fail to address the other side’s BS for a generation), there is going to be a lot of hand wringing, wailing, gnashing of teeth, and talk about the American people “voting against their interests.”

(There will probably be some number of folks talking about moving to Canada, too, but I’m not worried about that.  After the reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision on health care, right wingers don’t get to make fun of that sort of thing, again, ever.)

But what’s really going to drive Democrats to distraction is going to be the numbers of the popular vote, and this will be true for elections affecting both the House of Representatives and the White House. They should also worry about losing all the State Legislatures, but they won’t, and that’s part of the problem.

What they will focus on is how they were able to win a majority of the popular vote, and get more congressional votes, than the other side, but that it didn’t matter. They’re still going to get hammered in the House and Electoral College. Their response will likely be to blame Citizen’s United, the Super Pacs, and try to figure out ways to match the right-wing’s fundraising and spending apparatus in certain “key” districts nationwide. That’s another part of the problem.

Instead of addressing these problems directly, Democrats, along with their Progressive and Liberal supporters, will continue to play by the other side’s rules and try to beat them at their own game. They’ll continue to dabble in talk radio – and fail. They’ll continue to try and raise more money – and fail. They’ll continue to turn MSNBC into Fox News Left – and fail. And they’ll continue to complain about unequal treatment in the press – and fail. They’ll keep trying to change the political views of suburban America – and fail.

This is like trying to make money against the house in a Vegas casino – the house always wins in the end. What they need to do is flip the script and begin addressing the rules themselves. To do this, they’re going to need to make sure every vote counts, work on changing the way elections are run in this country, and they’re going to need to start at the local and state levels to build support for this sort of thing naturally.

And after November, that’s really all they’re going to be able to do, since they’re about to lose the Senate, the most demonstrably effective President in my lifetime is facing a coin flip against a demonstrably pathological liar, and the next time Democrats have a shot at the majority in the House of Representatives will be 2023 at the earliest (and more likely 2033). And this is going to happen despite the fact that the last time the GOP controlled every aspect of every branch of government, they nearly sank the American ship of state and built a house of cards economy out of make-believe money that eradicated $14 trillion of American household wealth between 2007 and 2009.

So, how have Republicans been able to do all this without being called to account for it? It really is simple and elegant – outside city elections in New Orleans, my vote does not count.  All you right wingers who are still reading don’t have to worry about how much or eloquently I support President Barack Obama – when the rubber hits the road on election day, my vote is simply discarded under the current system. It simply doesn’t matter if I use absentee voting or early voting, my vote for President doesn’t count, and my vote for Congress doesn't count much.  

Now, that’s something difficult to say, but is also something that is difficult to accept. Not only that, but it isn’t just my vote we’re talking about here. What we’re talking about it millions upon millions of Americans who are systematically disenfranchised as a matter of policy. It isn’t even a cut and dry Republicans vs. Democrats situation, either. Democrats helped build, maintain, and took advantage of this system for generations too – and there are millions of Republicans disenfranchised in New York state and California to prove it.

We’re not going to go too far down the road to false equivalence, however. Democrats weren’t intimately involved in the Florida Secretary of State’s office back in 2000, and they aren’t intimately involved in that same office today. Democrats aren’t the architects of an entire fantasy-land of paranoid delusion involving the looming specter of widespread voting fraud; they aren’t purging the voting rolls in 38 states; they aren’t attempting to roll back additional opportunities to vote; and they aren’t the ones selling the BS about how easy it is to get a photo ID in America. As a matter of fact, the only involvement Democrats, Liberals, and Progressives have with any of that right now is getting their asses kicked by it.

You’ve got to hand it to the right-wing – they sure know how to maximize advantage from the existing rules, and exploit that advantage to entrench their position. They did their homework and put in the time to organize and this has landed us where we are today. Think tanks helped coordinate ideas and develop leaders. Investments in radio – not just talk radio but companies who mix their right-wingery with classic rock – gave them a rock solid hold over the commute-from-the-suburbs-in-your-car crowd. Alliances with religious organizations and the NRA helped them turn out the most dedicated voters to any local elections – and that’s where they started to gain ground.

Because as the Democratic Party nationally focused more and more on Washington, the Republican Party nationally focused more on the state capitols. For any of you who missed civics class, the state capitols are where congressional districts are drawn, voting rules are established, and Electoral College assignments are determined. Democrats responded by further entrenching these rules in states where they were the strongest (abandoning states where they were competitive), or – like Cynthia McKinney of Georgia – jumping into the redistricting process whole hog to organize their own personal fiefdoms (coordinating with Republicans to concentrate Democratic voters and making other districts less competitive).

Wash, rinse, repeat, and we’re poised to have Karl Rove’s “permanent Republican majority” sworn in for January 2013, ready to nominate right wingers of pure ideology to the Federal Bench and a 7 – 2 split on the Supreme Court. You think it was fun when SCOTUS upheld the ACA? Just wait until that gets repealed and SCOTUS then strikes down the Voting Rights Act and we’re going to miss the day you only needed a photo ID to vote in this country!

So what should Democrats, Liberals, and Progressives do in their upcoming and ample spare time? The first thing they’re going to need to develop is a local focus, and one of those local focuses is going to need to be on voting and elections. If the right-wing can make a big deal out of a fake problem (voting fraud), then Democrats should be able to make a big deal out of a real problem (actual voter disenfranchisement). It will need to come along with more than a few very big ideas. Those ideas may not benefit any national Democrats left standing after November, but that has to be OK.

- Every vote counts. What will have to happen first and foremost should be the largest voter registration drive in the history of voter registration drives. An unchecked right-wing national government, Justice Department, and gutting of the VRA means very simply that it is going to be on us to make sure every new and onerous hoop can be jumped through. Legislation will have to be introduced by any Democrat left standing that expands the number of places someone can register to vote or acquire a voter ID. Litigation will have to be filed stopping every additional rollback of voting rights and every voter removed from the rolls. Every person able to be a poll worker or watcher is going to need to sign up. Every person with a working vehicle will be needed to drive people to the out of the way voting booths that will be set up.

- Demands must be made that every electronic voting booth produce two hard copies of the ballot once submitted. One goes in a lock box at the voting precinct in case of a hard copy recount, “glitch,” or “power failure.” The other the voter keeps as a receipt for voting.

- Focus must shift away from Washington All The Time to the local governments and states that have far more impact on the lives of the average voter than anything you’ll hear about on the Sunday talk-show circuit. I flipped news channels the other day and came across seven shows with people giving opinions about the opinions of other people in Washington. Meanwhile, you could fill seven 24 hour-days full of reporting real news on either the infrastructure behind the New Orleans levees, the Baltimore police department, or why Michigan’s state house is taking control of municipalities against the wishes of their elected officials. Or any host of other issues from around the country. There is a wealth of real information with real life impact out there that no one will find on cable news. It needs to get put there.

- New ways of voting need to be examined and instituted. New Orleans style of endless primaries and runoffs is ridiculous, and often ends up with elections being won by candidates with small percentages of support among the votes of the registered voting population. Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) or other mechanisms need to be tried. Urban centers and municipalities would benefit the most from such modernization, and finding more effective, cost-efficient, and responsive ways of selecting leadership will save money, increase participation, and may just help break the backs of the corrupt interests that keep holding cities back.

- Gerrymandering is the most corruptible aspect of modern American voting. There has to be a better way of determining who our representatives are in our representative republic, and we need to start exploring options. That goes for city councils, that goes for state legislatures, and that goes for Congress.

- Electoral College reform. We have computers now. Every vote can count. If we chose to keep the archaic system, the states need to start dividing their Electoral College votes based on state returns. I don’t care if that means Republicans get some of California’s 55 or Pennsylvania's 20, because that means Democrats get some from Texas. What it does do is put every state in play for a national Presidential election. Doing that will make the office of the President more directly responsive to the People, it will remove some of the importance of these ridiculous swing state “battles,” and may reduce the incentives for voter intimidation shenanigans of the kind we are currently seeing.

- Start a serious national discussion regarding the term of the Presidency. Even talking about that sacred cow will open up ideas about voting within our republic and holding our elected officials more accountable to the people. Let nothing be taken for granted.
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Monday, July 09, 2012

This Sort of Thing


So it looks like this. Ten years after the United States and NATO allies went into Afghanistan to root out Al Queda and their Taliban allies, even as our nation prepares to disengage from this conflict, we see the brutality of progress-resistant culture through the technology developed by progress-prone culture. Now, a woman can be summarily executed in the public square, while a group of terrorists surrounds them and cheers on the gunman, and the whole world can watch the event on YouTube. That the 3 minute video is as shocking as it is to so many around the world is a testament to both the unspeakable cruelty humans will use against one another absent a social mechanism of justice, and the delusions that hamstring the cultural and political decision-making in the West.

Now, by all means, be shocked and disgusted by the Taliban’s brutal treatment of women. What happened there is awful. But let that shock and disgust remind you of the context in which our own fragile advancement with regard to rights must be viewed. Let that shock remind you that such violence is an everyday occurrence on American streets. And remember this: while there are things you can do right now to help the women of Afghanistan, those things are limited. At the same time, the things you can do to help and protect women right here in America, in your own states and cities, in your own neighborhoods, are nearly limitless, and just as necessary.

Because let’s be clear – this sort of thing was going on in Afghanistan long before NATO invaded in 2002. It has continued all through the occupation. As a matter of fact, this sort of thing goes on all around the world, right now, in countries the United States considers both allies and adversaries. They may not use automatic weapons or post it on YouTube in an effort to spread the terror, but when women are locked into burning buildings or baby girls get smothered in their sleep, the perpetrator’s behavior comes from the same place. Hell, this sort of thing goes on right here at home, as women and young girls are gunned down at their own birthday parties in the streets of New Orleans, and their own family members refuse to identify the suspects. Or in Athens, when a man facing divorce guns down his wife and two of her friends at a backyard barbecue while their children are strapped into the car.   

I mean, two weeks ago, the YouTube video shocking the world was of a pack of boys laying into a harmless grandmother who was acting as a bus monitor. I’m not trying to equate the two events, but how do you think that video ends if those boys had easy access to automatic weapons, a culture that tells them women should be subservient to any man, and a lack of institutionalized justice? What if the Bus Monitor’s only option of “justice” was to have other male family members with guns to defend her?

That kind of culture puts the personal safety of any woman solely at the mercy of how far the men in her family are willing and able to go to protect her. She’d best not get uppity or independent – they might lose a little bit of willingness if she proves to be too much trouble. And heaven help her if she “shame” any of her male relatives with her behavior, lest they turn from her only defense mechanism to her judge, jury, and executioner.

Because let’s face it, folks, this sort of thing has gone on for almost all of human history, and you can see examples of it in almost any culture or religion. The human rights of women are not universally respected, and those places and cultures where they are tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Only the rule of law, together with institutionalized systems of justice backed up through force of arms have been able to make a dent in this sort of thing. A dent. And that’s only recently and only in certain nations.

And it took our own culture generations to get there.

The “shock” factor when looking at this sort of thing, especially among those in the West, comes from the fact that many western nations tend to fall somewhere in the “exception” category.  But let’s not be fooled by taking this out of context. There is a double edged sword to such historical confusion.

On the first edge, there is the shock that injustice of this nature goes on anywhere in the world, especially in this day and age, especially after certain nations that could be considered exceptions have spent so much blood and treasure to right such wrongs. This ignores several realities. NATO didn’t invade Afghanistan because of how the Taliban treated women. If that’s what we cared about, we never would have armed these folks in their fight against the Soviets. And let's dispense with the "hindsight is 20/20" nonsense. There’s only so far pleas of ignorance will get you.

While there was and is hope that the reconstruction of that nation will include more respect for women’s rights, this was not a strategic goal of military action. Simply put, allied nations do not have the political will to use the appropriate military force necessary to completely restructure Afghanistan’s culture with respect to women’s rights. Hell, allied nations barely have the political will to use appropriate diplomatic and cultural force necessary to encourage minor change in allied nations’ culture with respect to women’s rights. That willpower is inversely proportional to the price of gasoline in the American suburbs. Pretending these realities do not exist simply obscure the actual options on the table.  We in the West are limited in the ways we are able to help. Hell, we've been limited in the ways we've been able to help ourselves. 

That brings me to the second side – and the more insidious one – and that’s the idea that because our culture does not do “that sort of thing,” that we are inherently the “better culture.” We can simply pat ourselves on the back, pretend that we’re the way we are without any work, and pretend the work is finished. There could be nothing further from the truth.

Our culture did not become the “better culture” overnight or inherently, and we are far from being able to take that status for granted. Where we are right now was only achieved through generations of agitation and liberalization, with a respect for an amendable rule of law and an institutionalized system of justice backed up by force of arms. Yes, the United States was able to liberalize respect for women’s rights at a rate far faster than many far older nations. But those advances grew out of a combination of enlightenment thinking laid over a foundation of ancient institutionalized justice systems from France and the United Kingdom. The human rights starting block for the US of A was about 500 years or so in the making. Even then, highborn white women didn't start this experiment with the right to vote, women of color were only 3/5 of a person and had to submit to any whim of their owners under fear of violence, while Native American women were handed blankets infected with smallpox and Asian women were brought in to serve as sexual slaves for those men building the railroads. (Think about that the next time you want to play Tea Party Constitutionalist and demand a "return to the good ole days.") 

From there, it still took us 200+ years to get where we are today. Lest we forget that many of the nations that have a respect for women’s rights today were rebuilt from the ashes of World War II with trillions of American dollars, backed up with tens of millions of American soldiers and living under the American nuclear umbrella. For further context, despite such a display of seriousness with regard to human freedom, it still took an additional two generations of change, sometimes at the point of a bayonet, to bring the rest of the USA nominally on board with all that.

And where are we, today? Women still earn less than men for the same work. Childcare responsibilities still fall disproportionately on women even as health care costs are rising (more expensive with kids), state governments are cutting funding for public schools and daycare programs (which are still scheduled as if the majority of American children still harvest wheat or cotton in their spare time), and in the era of the 52% divorce rate, the institutionalized system of justice just isn’t that good at collecting child support. So, while women aren’t solely at the mercy of how far the men in her family are willing and able to go to physically protect her, she sure seems better off when there’s a man in her life to help with the bills. It’s almost like the “better culture” is set up that way for a reason.

Keep in mind, that’s before we start talking about the violence. What are the rates today? One in four women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, with a high percentage of those assaults coming from someone she knows. Domestic violence is such a thorny problem for our institutionalized system of justice that many states simply demand an arrest for any such call to the police – but that’s a new thing. As in “new” since I’ve been old enough that my parents let me watch COPS on television.

Furthermore, that all depends on having a functioning institutionalized system of justice that takes violence against women seriously in the first place. That means all women, without regard to race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or occupation. That means less excuse making and blaming the victim, and more solving and prosecuting crimes. In the second place, that system of justice is usually a reactive measure – the best that can be hoped for is a serious investigation after the violence has been done to try to track down those responsible.

And all that is before budget cutbacks to law enforcement. I guess some folks think there’s more respect for law enforcement when there is less of it. Culturally and historically, having a serious, institutionalized system of justice was the only way we’ve been able to move away from a society where the personal safety of any woman was solely at the mercy of how far the men in her family are willing and able to go to protect her. Without a viable or trusted justice system, how long do you think we’ll last before it gets back to that (where it doesn’t exist already)?

That’s where this could lead us. If you’re too busy patting yourself on the back for your own culture and looking down on others without context; or if you’re exploring unrealistic ways of addressing respect for women’s rights in particular or human rights in general in other cultures, you may not be paying close enough attention to what’s going on at home. I think about that every time I see a picture of women in Iran or Egypt – or even Afghanistan – back in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. If you’ve never seen one, go look. It will shock you, and it should. Because respect for rights can and have been rolled back, and quickly. Not just for the rural, "traditional" parts of certain cultures, but for the “advanced” middle classes as well. All those rights can be highjacked as soon as the next religious nut with a gun comes along and declares himself Supreme Leader. 

Living in a place that is an exception with regard to women’s and human rights is something special that must be appreciated, but it also must be protected and not taken for granted.  I’m reminded of that every time I hear about political organizations in the United States proposing to curtail women’s access to medical care because of some religious “freedom;” or when the state requires unnecessary invasive medical procedures for women; or every time I see a state legislator try to pass a law that will use the institutionalized system of justice to investigate every miscarried pregnancy as a possible attempted murder; or ordering that same justice system to take allegations of sexual assault less seriously as a matter of policy. While those activities may not pack an emotional punch akin to watching a crowd cheer an unjust execution on YouTube, they are all stops along the same ugly road of rolling back women’s rights as human beings.

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