Wednesday, 22 December 2010

On the Ethics of Outing

Apparently there's been some recent rumbles about outing Lindsey Graham.   Graham  has been an opponent of things like repealing DADT,  gay adoption, gay marriage and has supported constitutional amendments to prevent gay marriage.  I don't know whether or not it's true that Graham is gay, but I think the question of outing someone like Graham raises an interesting moral issue.

There's a pretty strong utilitarian case that can be made for the outing. As a legislator Graham was taking steps to severely restrict the rights of gay people.   Some would argue that if an action is within the law and helps to stop such injustices, the justification is obvious.   Would we have paused in revealing that a legislator had, say, had a child out of wedlock if that act was all that stood in the way of successful passage of civil rights legislation?  Nonetheless, there's something unseemly about blackmail even if the blackmailing is done to bring about positive ends.   So, I think that we stand on much firmer moral ground if we can show that the information is information that the voters deserved to know all along or at the very least, is information the person shouldn't have assumed would be protected by ordinary privacy considerations.

So to what extent is privacy deserved or reasonably expected in this matter? Arguably, sexual orientation is relevant to voters if that legislator is going to be making decisions about gay rights related legislation.  That's not to say only gay people people are qualified to legislate on gay rights but it help voters determine something of the background of the legislator that may help them to make assessments. We wouldn't contend that the fact that someone was a teacher is irrelevant if we anticipated their being called on to vote on education legislation.  We presumably wouldn't think a person's ethnicity irrelevant and out of bounds if we anticipated their voting on immigration legislation.  Why should a person's sexual orientation be out of bounds if they're going to be voting on gay rights legislation?  Politicians often proudly parade their families when they're campaigning because they clearly believe that that component of their private life is relevant to voters and they're okay with it.  Candidates typically reveal a great deal about themselves and a great deal is also revealed about them, what makes one's sexuality so special that it should be off the table?  I'm not suggesting candidates should release lists of lovers, but it's not obvious that one's sexual orientation so obviously should be off the table when so much about a candidate isn't.

Over and above the question of whether a person's sexual orientation is something voters have a reasonable expectation to inquire into, there's another question about what this sort of situation reveals about Graham's character, i.e., does it reveal a duplicitous or hypocritical nature? Presumably such moral failings, if present, are relevant to voters because they speak to character and trustworthiness. To many, a gay legislator's failure to support gay rights legislation is obvious hypocrisy, I'm willing to be a bit more charitable.  There isn't a logical contradiction, I suppose, in embracing homosexuality and opposing gays in the military or gay marriage. It would be an odd position to take but I suppose it is possible; one might make the arguments that conservatives often try to make, i.e., it's all about semantics and troop cohesion.  I don't find those defensible positions, but I'll acknowledge that  if one sincerely holds them it's possible to take those positions, be gay and not be a hypocrite. It's more problematic, though, to my mind, to try to argue that preventing homosexuals from adopting is permissible.  It's hard to understand such a ban as emanating from anything other than a view that being a homosexual is wrong and that to expose a child to gay people is to jeopardize their wellbeing.  So, insofar as a homosexual person opposes adoption by homosexuals, I believe that s/he reveals himself as a hypocrite.  And, I'd argue that blatant hypocrisy is something that voters deserve to know about.

There's also an extent to which we all believe that public figures insofar as they voluntarily took up public life have given up some of their rights to privacy.   People get incensed about outing gay people, but they don't seem to get nearly as incensed about the media releasing all kinds of other information about people's private lives.   There's a gossip section in the Washington Post that discusses where politicians and actors eat dinner in DC, what they ordered, whom they went to dinner with and even how much they tipped or what it cost.  Those certainly are facts about people's personal lives that are truly irrelevant to what they're doing as legislators but we don't hear people complaining that such privacy violations are unacceptable.  We eat it up when Eliot Spitzer gets caught with a prostitute or John Edwards gets caught in a hotel late at night.  So why are people so much more inclined to find gay outing unacceptable? I wonder if  this inclination to believe that homosexuality warrants special privacy considerations also suggests an inclination to view it as more shameful than some of these other acts. I can't imagine people becoming upset with someone "outing" someone as being straight.  It would be unlikely that such revelations would be met with angry rebukes that whether or not the person is inclined to sleep with members of the opposite sex is his/her business alone.  Perhaps the portrayal of this kind of outing as a terribly vindictive or cruel act serves to perpetuate the view that being gay is very shameful and closet worthy.

Just to be clear here, I'm not arguing that the sexual orientation of everyone is everyone else's business.  I'm arguing that it may be everyone's business if the person in question has deliberately chosen to be a public figure who will be casting votes on the matter.  I should also clarify that when I speak of outing in the above, I refer to the act of revealing someone's sexual orientation.  I think that all people, even public figures, have a right to privacy when it comes to particular details about their sex life. Of course, that right to privacy isn't absolute, and the privacy about such matters might be reconsidered if they reveal the person to be lying in some other area of his/her life.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Be Careful What You Wish For, GOP

So, it seems we're indeed getting the conflicting judgements on the constitutionality of the new health care plan's individual mandate as many anticipated.  Today, a  Virginia judge ruled the mandate unconstitutional.

I thought that people long ago stopped thinking that only those things explicitly spelled out in the constitution are things the government is allowed to do. I wish we could all, conservatives included,  just acknowledge this instead of engaging in ridiculous Commerce Clause and highway funding subterfuge.  But let's set that aside.

The important thing about the individual mandate, to my mind, is that at worst this is a tax but at best, if you're a tax and government hating conservative, it's something far less intrusive.  If it's a tax, it's hard to argue that the government lacks the authority to impose it.  But let's suppose it isn't a tax, let's suppose we can draw some clear and distinct line between a requirement to fund government and having the gov't obligate a citizen to purchase a service, as state governments often do in the case of auto insurance.

Insofar as it isn't a tax, because it's requiring us to buy a service on the free market rather than fund a government program, conservatives should, IMO,  think long and hard about opposing it. There's a good reason that this kind of plan was once the darling of conservatives -- it leaves the door wide open for market forces.  Presumably the government could have gone a far more radical route, just make medicare wide open or effectively wide open.  In that case, we could have had real discussions about socialism, but what we probably couldn't have had is an objection based on concerns about the constitutionality of the plan. We'd have funded it with taxes and it's hard to see what case could be made to block it.  Obama has opened up the door to a constitutional challenge only because he's too moderate, not because he's too liberal or the plan is too intrusive, but only because the plan isn't obtrusive enough.  But what conservatives should know, should they manage to win this case, is they've forced the hands of proponents of health care reform. The only workable solution to the cost problem, should an objection like this ultimately succeed, would then have to be one in which the government is involved far more directly so that the funding for the program will pass muster as a tax.   (Although, I must say that I can't imagine the SCOTUS holding up a ruling like this if only for the reasons mentioned, i.e., it seems the lesser of two "evils" in which the greater already clearly passes constitutional muster.)

ETA: Ezra Klein makes the same argument that I do! And see this October article to which he links.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

You Keep Using that Word ...

"Liberal" has been a dirty word in America for some time. But the actual meaning of the term seems to keep shifting rightward while politicians continue to struggle to avoid being tagged with it. Consider an example from a blog posting published in the paper edition of Friday's Washington Post

Jennifer Rubin observes that the Democratic Party of Virginia had the audacity to choose , in her terms, an "ultra-liberal" to lead the state party despite the results of the midterm elections.  Apparently, this was a sign that the Democratic Party didn't get it; the clear message of the midterms was that America will have no truck with the Democratic Party's liberal ways.  Setting aside the question of whether the midterm results indicate a rightward trend (and the deep disdain I hold for political agents who shape policy and pick candidates by identifying the easiest road to victory),  I was fascinated by the choice of the term "ultra liberal" to describe Brian Moran. Why is Moran an ultra liberal? Does he want to nationalize the banks, mandate a 30 hour work week, institute single payer healthcare, establish a national day care program, increase welfare spending, legalize drugs? Well, actually, turns out this "ultra liberal" has twice won a  "Friend of Business" award from the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, hardly a bastion of Marxism, and is a  gun rights advocate.  Furthermore, he is, at best, ambivalent about gay marriage.

Nevertheless, Rubin calls him an ultra liberal because he opposes off-shore drilling and supports organized labour. (Despite the BP oil spill this summer, opposition to offshore drilling is now a hallmark of radical leftism?) So that's all it take then, if you don't think unions are evil and that oil companies should be allowed to drill wherever they please, then you're not just a liberal, you're an "ultra liberal".

I wish that I had the time and energy to better document this attempt to marginalize as radical leftism any and all positions that don't toe the shifting conservative party line. This is less ballsy than the GOP's frequent use of "socialism" to describe a health care plan that was remarkaby similar to that championed by prominent conservatives in the not too distant past, but pretty remarkable nonetheless.  Small wonder that people that people scarcely bat an eye when people describe the NYT or CNN or even the Washington Post as liberal.  Language evolves, of course, but the question of how we're using "liberal" is particularly important because there seems to be some consensus on both sides of the aisle that it denotes the boundaries of what counts as reasonable policy and debate.

ETA: As further evidence of how far we've moved to the right and how the meaning of "liberal" has changed, consider the various progressive policies that Richard Nixon implemented or pursued.  (For example, this is a decent outline: link)  Or try googling "Nixon more liberal than Obama"