Monday, August 30, 2010

The Fair Elections Now Act

Common Cause is one of the most Jeffersonian organizations in the United States today, laboring against heavy odds to reduce the influence of corporate money in elections and seeking to obtain fundamental reforms in the American electoral system in order to increase democracy. If Jefferson were alive today, he would undoubtedly be a card-carrying, dues-paying member of Common Cause.

Teaming up with another excellent organization, Public Campaign, Common Cause is now pushing a national effort to get a piece of legislation called the Fair Elections Now Act enacted into law. The Fair Elections Act would create a system of public financing for federal elections, similar to programs already working with great effectiveness in many of the states. Under the envisioned law, candidates for federal office who agree to accept only donations of $100 or less (therefore eliminating the influence of massive corporate contributions of thousands of dollars) would get $400 in federal matching grants for every $100 raised.

This bill is being sponsored in the House of Representatives by Congressman John Larson (D-CT) and Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC), and in the Senate by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). These legislators are to be congraulated for their Jeffersonian efforts to limit the influence of corporate money on our electoral process.

The influence of corporate money on federal elections is an acid eating away at American democracy, and it is only going to get worse in the wake of the disastrous Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which this blog has already discussed. A Jeffersonian republic can only exist if the ideal of "one-citizen-one-vote" exists in actual fact, as opposed to being merely in theory. Technically-speaking, the richest citizen and the poorest citizen each have the same voting power on election day, but anyone who clains that the rich do not have a greater ability to influence the American political process as the poor are either deluding themselves or are outright lying (most likely the latter).

The Fair Elections Now Act would not be a silver bullet that would completely solve the problem, but it would be a big step in the right direction. All 21st Century Jeffersonians should rally around the legislation. They should communicate their strong support of it to their own representatives in the House and Senate, write letters to the editor, and do anything they can think of to help get it enacted into law.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Congress Considers Legalizing, and Taxing, Online Gambling

This New York Times story makes for some interesting reading. Many members of Congress are pushing legislation that would overturn the 2006 ban on online gambling. A major rationale for this effort is the fact that legalizing online gambling would allow the federal government to implement a tax on the activity, thus helping to alleviate the fiscal crisis our country is currently facing.

There is considerable opposition to the move, however, particularly from Republicans that have ties to the Religious Right, which traditionally supports government efforts to ban gambling. It will likely be a difficult fight to get the legislation passed. Nevertheless, lifting the ban is sound public policy and should be done as soon as possible.

Government efforts to prohibit gambling stem from a personal belief among certain groups that gambling is inherently immoral. This ignores the obvious fact that it is not the government's job to enforce public morality. Citizens can hold a wide variety of opinions about the ethics of gambling, but it should not be the government's responsibility to police such activities. We might as well speak of the government passing laws to prohibit lying or the use of profanity.

Furthermore, the 2006 ban on online gambling has been completely ineffective. It prohibits American financial institutions from transferring funds to and from online gambling establishments, but this merely resulted in driving it into the underground economy and did little or nothing to actually stop Americans from using online gambling sites. According to the article, Americans annually spend upwards of $6 billion on online gambling sites. As with the efforts to ban alcohol during Prohibition, and modern efforts to ban to the use of marijuana, such government measures are always doomed to failure.

Indeed, the only real impact such government bans have had is to deny the excise tax revenue that would otherwise be obtained from such activities. Estimates suggest that the federal government could derive $42 billion over the next decade from taxes on online gambling. This may not be all that much when set against the magnitude of the fiscal crisis, but it's $42 billion closer to a solution.

Ultimately, the long-term solution to our budget problems will involve a massive downsizing of the federal government and a less intrusive taxation system than the one which currently exists. A major aspect of a truly Jeffersonian tax policy will be the use of excise taxes on specific products and activities. Online gambling is the kind of activity crying out for an excise tax, and the first step towards obtaining it is, obviously, legalizing it in the first place.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Leo Szilard's Question

Today is the 65th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Fittingly, for the first time, the United States ambassador to Japan is participating in the memorial service being held in the city.

Leo Szilard was one of the great physicists of the 20th Century, and played a critical role in the Mahatten Project. But he strongly opposed the use of the atom bomb on Japanese cities, not only because he objected to the mass slaughter of civilians, but because he (quite correctly) predicted that the actual use of the weapon would lead to a nuclear arms race with Russia, raising the very real and disturbing possibility of the destruction of human civilization itself.

In a 1960 interview, Szilard put forward a question that every American should ask themselves whenever they consider the moral implications of our use of nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945.

"Suppose Germany had developed two bombs before we had any bombs. And suppose Germany had dropped one bomb on, say, Rochester and the other on Buffalo, and then having run out of bombs she would have lost the war. Can anyone doubt that we would have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and that we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nurnberg and hanged them?"

It's a good question.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

California's Proposition 8 Ruled Unconstitutional

In a sweeping decision that could change the landscape of the gay marriage debate, a federal judged in California has ruled that Proposition 8, the controversial initiative that had banned same-sex marriage, is unconstitutional. Finding no clear reason for same-sex couples to be denied marriage rights, U.S. District Vaughn Walker ruled that the proposition violated the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Constitution by denying gays and lesbians the same rights as other citizens.

This is a very good decision. It is true that Proposition 8 was, disappointingly, approved by a majority of the voters in California. But this is a classic case of the Enlightenment truth, which must be held sacred in a Jeffersonian republic, that the tyanny of the majority has no right under natural law to deny any minority group their basic human rights, including the right to marry whomever they want.

This decision is certain to be appealed, and may eventually go all the way to the Supreme Court. We're only in the opening stages of what will be a long and bloody judicial battle. But for now, it's time to celebrate a victory for equal rights.

New START Vote Delayed

Senator John Kerry (D-MA), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has delayed a committee vote on the New START nuclear reductions agreement with Russia, which was supposed to take place today. Although the votes were there to get the treaty out of committee, Kerry has said he wants to give his Republican colleagues more time to go over the agreement. This may help in winning skeptical Republicans over to the pro-ratification side of the table, but, it also moves the time table for the floor vote on the treaty dangerously close to the mid-terms elections, when senators are likely to be reluctant to stick their necks out.

The New START agreement is critically important. It will reduce the number of deployed American and Russian nuclear warheads by about 30% and institute a rigorous inspection and verification system. Because the last nuclear arms control treaty expired at the end of last year, there is currently no agreement legally in place between the United States and Russia governing nuclear weapons, and there won't be until this treaty is ratified.

The New START agreement is something that everyone needs to keep their eyes on for the next few months. It's a vital step in nuclear weapons reduction, and should be warmly supported by everyone.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Withdrawal From Iraq Proceeding According To Plan

Yesterday, President Obama announced that the United States is on track to officially wrap up its combat mission in Iraq on August 31. When he took office, there were 144,000 American troops in Iraq. Now, a year-and-a-half later, there are only around 50,000. These remaining troops will serve as a transition force, continuing to train Iraqi forces and protecting American faciltiies until a final, complete withdrawal takes place sometime next year.

While declaring an end to the official combat mission is something of a semantical nuance in light of the fact that 50,000 American troops will remain in Iraq, there can be no denying that this is a significant foreign policy achievement. As this blog has pointed out in the past, the Iraq War was an enormous error on the part of the United States, and ending the war was a major part of Obama's presidential campaign platform. That he has thus far succeeded is greatly to his credit.

21st Century Jeffersonians believe, as a matter of principle, that the United States should have as little to do with the Middle East as possible. It is good that we are winding up this unncessary war, which should never have happened in the first place. What happens in Iraq now is up to the Iraqis.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Thoughts on the Proposed NYC Islamic Community Center Near Ground Zero

One of the cornerstones of American life has always been religious liberty. In our country, everyone has to right to follow their own spiritual path (or none at all, if that it what they choose) and the government has absolutely no right whatsoever to interfere in the religious lives of citizens. America was the first society in the world to guarantee religious freedom for its people, and it has served as a beacon to other nations to follow in our example.

Thomas Jefferson himself was perhaps the single most important individual in creating this pillar of American life, striking one of the decisive historical blows for religious freedom with his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This ground-breaking piece of legislation separated church and state in Virginia and served as a model for similar efforts elsewhere. It also helped inspire James Madison when he wrote the Establishment Clause to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which separated church and state throughout the nation. Fittingly, Jefferson asked in his will that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom be one of only three achievements listed on his tombstone.

Regrettably, many Americans in our time seem to believe that religious liberty should apply only to their own religion, and not to others. Many unscrupulous politicians, particularly those allied to the Religious Right, are always on the lookout for some otherwise innocuous event that they can exploit in an attempt to whip up such bigotry, and they have recently found one in the proposed construction of an Islamic community center (not a mosque, as has been frequently reported in the media) in southern New York City. Called the Cordoba House, it will not be very far from the where the World Trade Center stood before it was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks.

The Cordoba House sounds like exactly the kind of community center that southern Manhatten needs more of. It will have a performing arts center, a restaurant, a pool, and various other ammenities. All of its facilities will completely open to the public, regardless of religious affiliation (rather like a YMCA). The project's organizers have met all the construction criteria, have all the necessary licenses, have jumped through all the necessary regulatory hoops, and have received the unanimous support of the local neighborhood council.

For the past few months, several right-wing political figures, including potential presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, have been viciously attacking the proposed Islamic community center and calling upon city authorities to block its construction (Palin, for her part, calls on people to "refudiate" the plan, even though "refudiate" is not a word). They argue that the Islamic center is somehow an attack on America. In Gingrich's words, "America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy civilization." This kind of pandering to religious prejudice in order to garner political support is the most immoral sort of demagoguery and should be rejected by all Americans.

Gingrich, who apparently doesn't care much for the religious freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment, has suggested that we not allow the Islamic community center to be built until Saudi Arabia allows churches to be built in its territory. Taking his logic to its obvious conclusion, we should not allow any mosques to be built anywhere in the United States, thus making a mockery of the American ideal of religious freedom. And suggesting that we become more like the most religiously repressive nation on the planet is simply insane. We are, after all, supposed to be better than they are.

In Houston, conservative talk radio host Michael Berry stated his opinion that if the Islamic community center is built, someone should blow it up. Had any talk radio personality in the nation advocated blowing up a church or a synagogue, he would have immediately been taken off the air. Michael Berry, however, has apparently not received even the slightest reprimand for his advocacy of violence. This is all the more disturbing when we consider the fact that someone set off a powerful pipe bomb at a mosque in Jacksonville, FL, on May 10, which exploded just before people were to arrive for evening prayer; local authorities say it was only sheer luck that no one was killed.

There are some who contend that the building of the community center is somehow an insult to those who died on 9/11. These people, whatever their motives, are allowing their emotions to get the better of them and are losing their sense of perspective. Only an ignorant person would see the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks as genuinely representative of the world's one billion Muslim people. The Cordoba House project is a manifestation of the kind of moderate and inclusive Islam that stands against the terrorists and their ilk, and which we should encourage rather than reject. For what it's worth, the project will include a memorial to the people who died in the 9/11 attacks, which included, lest we forget, many innocent Muslims.

The blatant anti-Muslim bigotry the center's opponents display should have absolutely no place in America. It is a self-evident fact that religious freedom applies equally to all people without a single exception. This being the case, the construction of an Islamic community center should be no more a cause for controversy than the construction of a YMCA center or a JCC building. After all, there are well over half a million Muslims living in New York City, and they have as much right to create community centers as anybody else.

The Cordoba House (and the organization behind it, the Cordoba Initiative) is aptly-named. It is a reference to the Spanish city of Cordoba, which, during the Middle Ages, was an oasis of peace, tolerance and mutual understanding between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, each of which made up a significant portion of the city's population. At its height, which lasted centuries, Cordoba was one of the glories of human civilization, with extraordinary achievements in philosophy, science, medicine, poetry, music, architecture, and many other fields of human endeavour. The purpose of the Cordoba House seeks to reclaim this legacy of religious tolerance by encouraging understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. By doing so, it hopes to improve inter-religious harmony in New York City and beyond.

As Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf, chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, stated in an op-ed piece he published in the New York Daily News to respond to the attacks on the project:

I have been the imam at a mosque in Tribeca for 27 years. I am as much a part of this community as anyone else. Our mosque is as much a part of the neighborhood as any church, synagogue, or surrounding business. My work is to make sure mosques are not recruiting grounds for radicals.

To do that, Muslims must feel they are welcome in New York. Alienated people are open to cynicism and radicalism. Any group that believes it is under attack will breed rebellion. The proposed center is an attempt to prevent the next 9/11.

Many opponents of the project have taken to launching ad hominem attacks on Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf himself, attempting to portray him as some sort of Al Qaeda sympathizer, when in truth he is the complete opposite. Such ad hominem attacks are not only unethical and unfair, and demonstrate a shocking ignorance about Islam, but also prove that the opponents of the project have no valid arguments on which to rest their case.

It is a shame that when moderate Muslims in America step forward in a spirit of brotherhood, they are greeted with scorn and hatred. Thankfully, the Cordoba House project has received considerable support from both Christian leaders and Jewish leaders, as well as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It is planned that the center's board of directors include Christian and Jewish representatives as well as Muslims. We can only hope that the project will soon receive the full and fair approval that it deserves. If the proposal is rejected, then anti-Muslim bigotry will have won, and religious liberty in America will have suffered a setback.

Thomas Jefferson, needless to say, would had absolutely no problem with the project and would have considered its opponents immoral demagogues. He was actually interested in Islamic culture and, out of intellectual curiosity, purchased a copy of the Koran as a young man. To Jefferson, reading the Koran was an obvious part of making himself more educated about the world in which he lived. Interestingly, it was on Jefferson's copy of the Koran, borrowed from the Library of Congress for the occasion, that Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, swore his oath of office when he took his seat in early 2007.

21st Century Jeffersonians should unhesitatingly support the Cordoba House project, and all others like it. Our vision of a Jeffersonian republic is one in which all people enjoy equal religious freedom, and where no one religious viewpoint enjoys any special privileges or advantages over other viewpoints. The bigots who try to exploit religious differences among citizens purely for political advantage should be decisively rejected, and all activities that encourage deeper understanding between peoples of different religious backgrounds and traditions should be encouraged. That, clearly, is what Jefferson would want.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Why Does the First Lady Have a Staff?

Here's a very minor, almost completely unnoticed news story: Camile Johnston, the communications director for First Lady Michelle Obama, is leaving her position to pursue a job in the private sector. Johnston had also been Tipper Gore's communications director during her time as First Lady.

Not a big deal at all, but it begs a question: why does the First Lady have a communications director? For that matter, why does the First Lady need a staff of any kind? I'd have to double check, but I'm fairly certain that Abigail Adams didn't have a communications director, much less a full-time staff.

(Please note that I am not trying to pick on Michelle Obama in particular. I'm sure that Laura Bush and Nancy Reagan also had unnecessary staffs.)

As I pointed out in yesterday's post about the media circus surrounding Chelsea Clinton's wedding, it is wrong to think about the President as anything more than a public servant there to get a job done. The President's family should not be seen as any more important than any other family in the nation, and the spouse of the President should not have to fulfill any particular duties that would otherwise interefere with his or her professional or family life.

Furthermore, it doubtless costs a hefty amount of money for the annual upkeep of the First Lady's unnecessary staff, particularly in terms of the salaries of its members. While it's obviously a very small drop of water in the massive ocean that is the federal budget, in a time of fiscal crisis, every penny counts.

Cluster Munitions Treaty Enters Into Force, But America Still Not Signed On

Today is a day for celebration among those who desire a more peaceful world. Having been ratified by the required number of nations, the international treaty known as the Convention on Cluster Munitions entered into force today, marking the culmination of years of effort by activists and diplomats across the planet. The treay, negotiated in Dublin in late 2008, bans signators from using, producing, or stockpiling cluster bombs. To date, it has been signed by 107 countries, adn the ratification process has been completed in 38 countries.

Cluster bombs have been a scourge on humanity ever since they were first developed. Because they scatter small bomblets over wide areas, it is difficult and in many cases impossible to avoid civilian casualties when using them, especially when they are deployed during fighting in urban areas. Furthermore, a surprisingly high proportion of the small bomblets fail to explode on impact, leaving a lethal danger to civilians that can persist for months and even years after the fighting has ended.

Used in conflicts such as Vietnam during the 1970s, Afghanistan in the 1980s, Kosovo in 1999, Iraq in 2003, and Lebanon in 2006, among many African conflicts, cluster bombs have killed thousands of innocent civilians over the years, and continued to do so today. Indeed, cluster bombs kill significantly more noncambatants than soldiers, and four out of ten people killed by cluster bombs are children. They are barbaric weapons by any moral standard.

This issues involved in the cluster bomb debate are very similar to those of the debate over whether to ban anti-personnel landmines, which this blog has touched on in the past. Thomas Jefferson, being a man of the Enlightenment, was always in favor of doing whatever was possible to alleviate the sufferings war inflicted upon innocent people, and would have have warmly approved of these international efforts to ban the use of weapons that cause unacceptable harm to civilians.

Conspicuous on the list of countries which have thus far refused to sign the Convention is the United States of America. This fact should outrage every American. It's time for our country to join with the rest of the world and sign the treaty as well.