Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dumb People Ruin Everything

"Wait wait wait--I'm a little weak on the whole 'good' and 'bad' thing. . . "
--Dr. Venkman, Bill Murray's character in the film 'Ghostbusters.'

On September 28 2008, thirty-three ministers who are part of the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian organization, decided to build a test case to challenge the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) restrictions on churches engaging in political activity. At issue is the 1954 amendment to the tax code at 26 USC sec. 501(c)(3), introduced by then Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson, which does not allow a tax-exempt church to "participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office." Coordinated by Mr. Erik Stanley, a tax attorney, the ministers endorsed by name a candidate for the up-coming United States Presidential election, and then notified the IRS of their actions. If the IRS chooses to enforce the limitation on political activity by taking away the churches' tax exempt status, then Mr. Stanley will bring the IRS to federal court, asking a judge to strike down that limitation as a violation on the ministers' first amendment right to freedom of speech.

I know I said Bill Murray--but I just like Sigourney Weaver, Okay?

As you can well imagine, everyone is very excited about this, making bold and important sounding statements about my two least favorite legal clichés: 'freedom of speech' and 'separation of church and state.' I really hate that. At another time, for those of you who really care, I will give brief rundown on what 'freedom of speech' and 'separation of church and state' mean, and how they apply in this context (and if you don't care: no worries. Only I care. I know this).

Instead, I want to comment on a curious aspect of censorship: the dangers of Dumb People.

'Censorship' means an authority has restricted some information, because the authority believes communicating that information is dangerous. Narrowing further, censored information poses a threat, either because it is true--or because it is false.

The former, censorship of information that is true, is the less controversial. Rightly or wrongly, our political system has determined that some information cannot be expressed publicly, because knowing that information poses a threat to society. For example, I cannot post technical information about how to best separate the two main isotopes of uranium (uranium 235 and uranium 238) necessary for building an atomic bomb.

Ms. Shirley Eaton. She used to work for Goldfinger, but now she works for the US Department of the Treasury

Censoring incorrect information ('incorrect' for whatever reason a person believes it to be false) poses an interesting question that touches on the foundations of a pluralistic liberal democracy. For example, placement of certain books in libraries, idiotic political advertisements, and opinions expressed by media pundits, all invite raucous comment--especially when whoever's commenting believes the opinion, advertisement, or book is 'wrong' or 'biased.' The offending information must be restricted or banned, so the argument goes, because its propaganda value will convince a significant portion of society to think the false information is in fact true. But if you were to ask the raucous commentators if they felt swayed by the false propaganda, they would assure you that had not. No one (that I am aware of) has ever said 'Please restrict this false information, because if I keep hearing it, I am going to believe it.' No, the people who want to restrict information are not worried about themselves--they are worried about the OTHER people who hear it: the Dumb People.

If everyone was 'smart' (meaning had the same judgment and values as the people advocating the censorship), there would be no need to restrict the information: all right thinking people would recognize the falsity, and dismiss it out of hand. But those who don't know better, they might believe the false information, to the detriment of the Smart People. Dumb People: they ruin it for everybody.

Take, for instance, a book that urges everyone to become gay, have a same-sex marriage, raise gay children, and live a gay life style. There is a portion of American society who would find that book offensive, and not want it placed in public libraries. But not because they are afraid that they might accidentally read the book, and become gay themselves. No--the worry is that Dumb People or impressionable children (i.e. Dumb Kids) will read the book, and become gay. Nevermind the fact that no one has ever chosen their sexual identity based on book learin', the Smart People still need to protect themselves from the Dumb People--you never know.

Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson. Would you buy a used car from this man? How about giving him $700 billion USD, no restrictions and no oversight?

Getting back to the Alliance Defense Fund ministers, if I attended one of their services, I imagine I would be told that God wanted me to vote Republican, because God is tough on national defense, abortion, and earmarks--just like Senator McCain. Or I would hear that God's platform includes national health care, increased funding for education, and a tax cut for middle class families earning less than $250,000 USD a year--just like Senator Obama. Or maybe God had come out for Ron Paul or Libertarian candidate Bob Barr. Or God is now on the side of Ralph Nader or Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney. Following the Divine Endorsement, what would I do?

I'll tell you right now: even if Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, the Gotama Buddha, Vishnu, and Bertrand Russell all gave a homily on how I needed to vote the McCain-Palin ticket--no soap, is all I have to say. On the other hand, even a below-average speaker could probably shame me in voting for either Mr. Nader or Ms. McKinney (if not both). Why? Because I am already favorably disposed towards the Greens, and have a tattoo of Ralph Nader across my chest.

My point is, I am skeptical of the value of endorsements: I think by and large, the people persuaded by hearing that God Is On Our Side, they were leaning that way already. Even the Dumb People.

Mr. Ralph Nader. We're still waiting to see if he will accept his pending endorsement from the Supreme Being

Of course, as President Lincoln famously warned, you can fool all of the people some of the time--to their great detriment. A classic example is what happened during the 2000 South Carolina Republican presidential primary. Just prior to that election, Senator McCain had beaten then Governor George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary, and it looked like he would also win in South Carolina. Fearing the momentum would make Senator McCain unbeatable, Governor Bush launched one of the more disgusting campaigns of our time. For example, Bush covered the state with the rumour that Senator McCain fathered a BLACK CHILD out of wedlock with a BLACK PROSTITUTE. Senator McCain does have a dark-skinned daughter: he and his wife adopted an orphan from Bangladesh. Nevertheless, enough Dumb People believed Bush's smear campaign, and Senator McCain lost badly. The McCain campaign never recovered.

Would truth, justice, and democracy have been better served if George Bush had been prevented from lying to the Dumb People? I would say no, and for two reason. First, I cannot imagine any effective way to screen the truthful sleazeball campaigns from the lying sleazeball campaigns. One of the early principles that arose from the US Supreme Court freedom of speech litigation is that the better remedy for 'bad' speech is to encourage more speech, as opposed to restricting the bad speech. For example, instead of some South Carolina Caliph issuing a wholly unenforceable order for Governor Bush to 'stop lying,' the McCain campaign and independent local media should have passed the dual message of Senator McCain's adoption and Governor Bush being a lying pig face sack of goose goo. Did that happen? Obviously, not enough.

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! Wait--What? Oh, not again!

Still, second (and for me the more important point), is that as a society with a republican form of democracy, we depend on an informed populace. While voters often make mistakes, on balance executive power must have a popular check on its authority. So how do we get informed plebs to make a good plebiscite? By letting them make mistakes. If anyone in South Carolina voted for George W. Bush, because they thought Senator McCain fathered a child with a black prostitute--then that person was a complete moron. However, I believe that morons eventually stop being morons, if their moron-ity is pointed out to them. Education--not unlike manure--happens.

Why do I believe that? Because I'm a gullible, bleeding heart liberal. But then again......On September 29 2008, the US House of Representatives shocked President Bush, the Democratic and Republican Leadership, Senators McCain and Obama--and probably even god--when they voted down the brokered compromise 'rescue plan,' giving Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson $700 billion USD of mad money. Is there a fiscal crisis, demanding immediate action and an outpouring of princely sums? Probably. But I was delighted to hear several representatives saying that the last time President Bush was declaring a national emergency, and he needed immediate piles of money and authority, it was for the Iraq War. Given that the last time this White House was handed a blank check, it turned out not only to NOT be an emergency, but President Bush went on to make a pig's breakfast of the whole situation. So--no soap, President Bush--as they say where I come from. You say you need seven hundred large--I mean EXTRA large? Show us--do some of that 'advise and consent' stuff. Then we can talk. The formerly Dumb People have spoken.
Ms. Vivian Leigh. Repeat after me, Wall Street: "As God is my witness, I'll NEVER be poor a-gain!"

In conclusion, do I disagree with the Johnson Amendment, and think ministers should be able to endorse political candidates from their pulpits, and keep their tax exempt status? Absolutely not. But not because I am worried about ministers unduly influencing the Dumb People. I object, because I am a cheapskate, and do not want to pay money to subsidize their political activity by paying for the infrastructure that provides their water, sewer, police and fire protection, and road maintenance.

You want to write childish things about Presidential candidates that no one cares about, then give up your tax breaks and get a blog like the rest of us losers---I mean zealots.

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