Martin and Zimmerman

“Opinions are like assholes: everybody has one.”  Even with no access to cable TV news, it seems I can’t get away from this case.  It’s everywhere.  So I’m going to unload my opinion on it, and hope that helps me ignore it for a while.

The case as I’ve heard it (and I am trying to ignore opinions here and go by things like the eyewitness reports, the police records, and the 911 calls) is that George Zimmerman is an asshole who thought he was Dirty Harry or something.  He liked to go around his gated neighborhood and call 911, and he had a long record of false alarms with 911.  He was carrying on with his jerkiness one night when he saw a figure he did not recognize, wearing a hoodie and walking between the houses.  He called 911 to report it, and then got out of his truck to tell the person to leave.  The person in the hoodie, Treyvon Martin, saw Zimmerman coming towards him and felt threatened, so he ran.  Zimmerman chased him, and then they fought.  During the fight, Zimmerman sustained wounds to the head and thought Martin was going for his gun, so he drew the gun first and shot Martin fatally. Zimmerman did feel like, in the end, the shot was self-defense because Martin was beating the shit out of him, and cooperated with the police investigation.

If I got any of those facts wrong, please feel free to correct me if you can provide a factual source.

You’ll notice I didn’t mention race here.  That’s because I don’t think it is relevant to the facts of the case.  Unfortunately, I think paying attention to race at all is what resulted in Zimmerman being acquitted, instead of getting locked in prison for a while where he belongs.  My opinion is that the prosecutors, pushed by cries of racism, overcharged Zimmerman with second-degree murder.  Second-degree murder requires an intent to kill going into the fight.  The more appropriate charge would have been manslaughter.  From what I have heard, had the charge been manslaughter, Zimmerman probably would have been convicted and served time.  The reason he was not has nothing to do with his race and everything to do with the prosecution being unable to prove intent to kill.  If the prosecutors had not been pushed to up the charges beyond what was provable, Zimmernman would not be a free man right now.

That really bothers me, as does a lot of the reaction going on surrounding that verdict.  There are so many things wrong with this whole picture that I hardly know where to begin.  Let me state first that I do not deny that racism exists.  I do not deny that racial profiling happens with the justice department at all levels.  I do not deny that people can be assholes, and I do not deny that I am not as closely familiar with this as somebody with darker skin.  However, I did grow up in the south, I did graduate from Little Rock Central High School while living in what the local police department called “the war zone” of Little Rock, I have spent time in and around black culture both in Arkansas and here in Michigan.  I am not totally sheltered and ignorant.  I have felt what it is like to be a minority temporarily, I have been the only white person in a place, I have walked small and kept my mouth shut, I have listened to the locker room talk and watched behavior.

I do think that racism is a declining attitude.  Every generation of children has less and less concept of it, and as those children grow, they affect policy and behavior and popular culture, and then their children move a little further down the line.  I trust in this process.  I am concerned that continuing to try and force this process may have backlash.  I know that some people are already rebelling against what they see as a constant onslaught of accusations of racism and privilege where none was intended.  I personally feel like definitions of “white” and “black” are getting awfully fuzzy, and I agree with the opinion that arbitrarily calling Zimmerman “white” in this case was baiting a bit.  Hispanics have to deal with prejudice as much as blacks do, and I wonder if northerners realize how bad this attitude can be in the south, especially in places like Florida, Texas, and the other southern border states.

Getting away from racism, I am concerned with the general mob mentality toward not only this trial, but to many cases that manage to get into the mainstream media and widespread coverage.  We have a system set into place.  It may not be perfect, but it is the best system we have been able to devise.  It is a system that allows evidence to be presented to a randomly selected group of people, who then decide the case.  Voir dire practices today may mean that “random” is more theory than practice, but that is a separate debate.  The jury trial system is intended to prevent two undesirable things: fiat rule, and mob rule.  We don’t want either one of these. We do not want to have a fiat judicial system, where people who are appointed or even elected (because we know how elections can be bought) have the power of life and death in criminal decisions.  We do not want mob rule…dear gods, we do not want mob rule!  Mob rule is what brought us lynchings and burnings, for the love of all that is holy WE DO NOT WANT MOB RULE!!! And yet in this case, the opinions I keep hearing seem to be begging for mob rule.  They seem to say, hey, that jury’s decision is invalid because the majority of people who weren’t there, who didn’t hear the case from the people involved, who only know the soundbites they hear on tv and see on the internet, that those somehow know better.  I’m sorry if you don’t agree with the verdict.  I agree that Zimmerman appears to be an asshole, that Martin did not deserve to die, that something went wrong in this case.  BUT THE JURY HAS SPOKEN.  I do not want mob rule, no matter what.

Finally, there is this new concern I hear this week about a civil rights case being brought against Zimmerman.  This sounds a little bit like what happened to OJ Simpson; guilt could not be proven in the criminal court, so they tried him again in a civil court.  I personally feel like this violates double jeopardy.  I think the courts should be combined somehow.  Make it so that the jury can assign civil penalties in the event of an acquittal.  Zimmerman certainly seems like an asshole, Martin certainly didn’t deserve to die, and Zimmerman was obviously responsible for the death, no question.  Surely the jury could have imposed some kind of penalty when they realized second-degree murder could not be proven.  Redirecting the judicial system in this way would be a long process, but I think it is one that should be considered as better upholding our constitutional protections against double jeopardy.

That’s it.  That’s my opinion on all of this.  I’ll entertain and welcome civil discussion on the topic here, but otherwise I’m going to go back to ignoring all the facebook posts, all the tweets, all the headlines, etc.

Judge

For a culture that tries to pride itself on being free, open, multicultural, multiracial, and diverse, we sure can be a damnably judgmental lot.  From religion to parenting, education to housekeeping, no matter who you are or what you do or how you do it, there seems to be somebody out there who is ready to make a judgement on it…usually a negative one.

The story I mentioned yesterday about the little boy who escaped his home in Lansing was full of judgmental comments.  I even saw some among my friends, although some of those were retracted later.  The foster mother slept in until 9 am!  The six-year-old boy was in diapers!  An autistic child got out of the house!  All of these were obvious reasons to damn the mother, call in CPS (again!), remove the child (ALL the children!) immediately.  None of these people knew this family.  None of them knew her circumstances.  Yet all of them were ready to rip her family apart and destroy her life over these things.

Is it any wonder that so many of us constantly second guess our actions, our entire lives?  Particularly when it comes to parenting, where all it takes is one judgmental asshole to start a chain reaction that can rip an entire family to shreds and ruin lives, is it any wonder that some of us who live in the cultural borderlands constantly worry over whether we will be next?  How dare she homeschool her disabled children!  How can she not have her 5-year-old potty trained? How can those children survive emotionally in that pagan household? How can they live in such a dirty, messy house? How dare they keep their yard that way? How dare they smoke and drink when they have children? How can a blind parent possibly care for a child, much less six?

I started out wanting to shout, “You don’t know me!  You can’t judge me until you have lived my life!”  I have some more work to do before I truly get there.  I still have the fear in me, the fear that somebody else’s judgement of me will lead to government involvement, to my family being destroyed.  My husband thinks it’s an unreasonable fear, but I’ve seen it hit too close to home.  I’m like a woman who personally knew that little girl on the evening news that had horrible things happen to her; it can’t help but color the way I think.  Maybe it’s part of what colors my politics.  As long as the government has the power to take my children away because of how I choose to live my life, I don’t feel free and safe.  Anytime I think of the government having the power to do something, I try to imagine what could happen to me if somebody who didn’t like me or my lifestyle had that power.  I don’t want anybody to have that kind of power over others.  I don’t want any of us to have to senselessly live in fear, to have to constantly second-guess our actions based not on what is best for ourselves, but on what others might think.

And when I go out into public spaces, I don’t judge those I see.  I stare at all the incredible diversity on display before me, and I wonder what it is like to live behind all those other sets of eyes.

Political Ethics

scalesThis is part 3 of my series on ethics.  You can read earlier posts here and here.  As a review, here are the rules I follow:

I’ve talked about how these rules affect my religious practice and my everyday life.  Now we move on to a bigger sphere:  politics.  How do I consistently apply these rules to my political philosophies?  Those of you who know me, know that I consider myself a Libertarian.  Most pagans that I know are Democrats, so I find myself a pretty rare bird, although I’ve met other pagan Libertarians (and I’ve even heard there are pagan Republicans in the wild!).  I sympathize considerably with anarcho-voluntaryists like those leading the Free State Project, but I feel like the Libertarians are the next best step along the path to freedom, rather than aiming straight for no government at all.

I’ve seen a lot of commentary out there denouncing the very idea that pagans can be libertarians without being hypocrites.  Obviously, I disagree.  Let’s look at some details.

‘An it harm none, do as thou wilt.

The basic Wiccan Rede is the most obvious connection between my religious ethics and my political ethics.  I see no reason to control somebody else’s behavior if they are not harming anybody.

There are those who would extend this to “harming themselves,” but I do not feel comfortable drawing that line.  I do not know what may be driving a person to addiction, to physical self-abuse, to what I might see as self-harm.  I can not see the world from inside their heads.  Where I feel uncomfortable with the thought of smoking a pack a day, for some people they truly enjoy it, and are accepting of the possible health sacrifice that accompanies it.  Likewise, my personal enjoyment of a beer and a smoke at the end of the day, perfectably acceptable comforts for my life, might be offensive to somebody else.  We need to be able to determine our own level of comfort, joy, and acceptable risk, and these will be different for everybody.  Obviously, I am against the drug war, but I am also against draconian smoking bans, government food edicts, sin taxes, government involvement in marriage, illegal prostitution, and bans on suicide.

When a person’s behavior begins to harm others, then it becomes appropriate to step in.  Some of these are obvious, like murder, rape, assault, theft; all of these should be illegal, and justify intervention.  Some are not so obvious, and will always involve a constant oscillation of litigation, regulation, and debate.  When it comes to things like parenting, property rights, noise, driving, and other areas that currently come under a plethora of laws and regulations, I tend to prefer erring on the side of freedom, and counting on civil litigation for truly egregious cases.  I tend to see more lives being harmed by the state stepping in too soon and too forcefully, than would be harmed if we relaxed the rules a bit.  We cannot eliminate all the harm in the world simply by making more rules and regulations. Therefore, in the name of minimizing harm, I believe it is very, very, very important to look at all possible effects of a law or regulation before implementing it, including negative side effects and ripples.  When we only look at the positive effects, we are blinding ourselves to the certain harm that will come along for the ride.  That harm needs to be brought out into the open, weighed and measured, balanced against the potential good.  I do not believe it is right to lower the standard of living of a thousand people in order to raise the standard of a few.  I do not believe that there is no societal cost too high for saving a human life.  I do not believe that you have to acceptable collateral damage in the name of the greater good.

What you do comes back to you, times three.

I would be very happy indeed if something like this rule became a little more prominent in our nation’s concept of justice and retribution.  If you cause harm, you must pay the price for it.  If you cause no harm, there is no price to pay. (That would eliminate a lot of obnoxious nuisance laws right off the bat!) And unless your crime is locking another human in a cage, I don’t see that as an appropriate response.  My thoughts in this area are constantly evolving, but I do find myself somewhat offended at the idea of locking people in cages for things like littering, smoking, drawing with chalk, dancing in a public space, making obnoxious statements, ingesting certain substances, or trying to end their life. (Seriously, how stupid is that?)  When it comes to murder, my first instinct is to support the death penalty, but knowing how easy it is for the justice system to get it wrong, I just can’t do that, as I would be supporting the certain execution of innocents.  Perhaps prison is the only viable solution, then, for high crimes like murder, but it should be used much more selectively, with punishments instead tailored to the crimes committed and harm inflicted.

I support jury nullification, creative sentencing, work-release programs, and fines.  I oppose mandatory minimums, “three strikes” laws, most licensing requirements, requirements that involve carrying the correct paperwork with you at all times, police or judicial “fishing expeditions” and roadblocks, and the general trend towards militarization of the police and the creation of a police state.

Compulsion is black.

This is an area where, if this rule is correctly applied, I think some of the problems other pagans have with Libertarianism could be fixed somewhat.  Compulsion is wrong, in both directions.  Most of the time, this rule comes into play when Libertarians say that employers, business, and individuals should not be forced to do things against their will.  In general, I tend to hold with that.  I would rather support education than regulation.  Rather than compel all bars and restaurants to ban smoking entirely, I would prefer to allow each business to make their own choice (many were making that choice on their own, before laws went into effect) while allowing non-smoking advocates to make their case as loudly as they want.  Rather than compel employers through anti-discrimination laws and quotas, I would prefer to support continued education and voluntary boycotts, allowing the tide of public opinion to continue to overwhelm those who continue to hate. (Before anybody says anything, I am willing to accept that government intervention in this area was necessary 50, 100, and 150 years ago, mostly because government intervention helped cause the problem in the first place.)  Rather than compel businesses across the country to take on accommodating expenses that could cause them to shut down and may never be needed, I would rather support continuing education and public advocacy, again combined with voluntary boycotts.

Harm via compulsion applies in another direction, though.  I think there is a place for government recognition of harm caused by discrimination and harrassment.  I just think that it may be better handled through civil litigation than through the constant growth of laws and regulations.  In these areas, when the government makes proactive regulations, requiring paperwork and expense, it is assuming everybody is guilty and needs to be watched and controlled.  I would prefer to assume that everybody is innocent until proven guilty and in need of watching and regulating, particularly on issues that are in obvious societal flux.

This is a pretty basic look.  When you get into the political realm, the scope is so incredibly broad that it is impossible to apply any one hard and fast rule to all situations.  Everything lies amidst shades of gray, with compromises a constant necessity.  I think too many people of any political stripe forget this, trying to treat every situation as black and white when it can’t ever be that way.  I will never see any kind of Libertarian utopia in my lifetime, and it will probably never happen. But I will continue to approach situations and controversies from that point of view, and make my own decisions in that light.

Happy Independence Day!

Gadsden Flag

This is the flag I wave on the 4th of July.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you a discussion of the meaning of the 4th of July in the United States.

Yes, it’s great fun to set things on fire.  I’ve got things on fire right now, smoking some ribs on my back porch.  I plan to set more things on fire tonight, and watch big things go Boom! with my family.

Today we set things on fire.  Back when the Declaration of Independence was written, it set hearts and minds on fire.  I think we could use some firesetting in today’s hearts and minds as well.

When the Declaration of Independence was written, in 1776, only about 1/3 of the population of the nascent United States supported it.  If democracy had been the rule of the day, our nation would not exist, and we likely would still be a protectorate of the British crown.  Our nation was not born in support of democracy.  It was born in support of freedom.  These are two very different things.  The Declaration itself states that government exists not to enact the will of the majority, but to protect the rights of all, and retains its power by the consent of the governed.

The consent of the governed.

Think of the injustices and intrusions committed by our government today against its citizens.  Think about how you make sure your papers are in order before traveling, you check to see what the government will allow you to carry with you when traveling, you expect to be fondled and photographed if you choose to travel by air, and if you are not white or of mainstream appearance you expect to be stopped and harrassed while you are traveling by any means, even foot.  The government spies on us, detains people indefinitely, removes children from loving homes, locks citizens in cages for pursuing their own happiness.  The government controls what we can plant, what we can buy, what we can sell, what we can consume.  The government can come in and shoot your dog, forcibly extract your bodily fluids, steal your property.

These things will continue to happen only as long as we, the governed, consent.  Most of us provide tacit consent by brushing off shocking incidents of government overreach by saying they are the exception, they are not common enough to worry about, “they haven’t come after me.” If enough citizens become aware and remove their consent, then and only then will our path as a nation change.  I would never advocate another violent revolution such as the one which birthed our nation, but I do advocate change, through education, information, dialog, and removal of consent.

Happy Independence Day, and may we have more freedom in this coming year than we did in the one before.

Equal Rights for All

485508_10151822396759745_1711644740_nThe Supreme Court has decided several controversial cases this week.  Today it handed down two rulings that are a breakthrough for personal freedom:  United States v. Windsor, and Hollingsworth v. Perry.

In the first case, United States v. Windsor, the surviving widow in a same-sex marriage sued the United States for violating her equal protection rights because the IRS denied her a marriage-related tax exemption.  This case illustrates perfectly why gay marriage rights are about more than just a name, more than a label.  In this case specifically, the issue was a tax exemption that prevents surviving spouses from having to pay the “death tax” on what their deceased spouse leaves behind.  I could argue all day about the validity of the thousands upon thousands of little details like this in our tax code, but the fact remains that, under our current system, they exist.  It’s not just taxes; hundreds of other regulations governing property rights, medical care, and custody of children hinge upon the definition of marriage.  Getting a governmental marriage approval stamp on a relationship confers so many privileges that people in traditional monogamous heterosexual marriages just don’t even think about.  Yes, a same-sex couple in any state can go to a church or a secular minister and have their own wedding ceremony.  They can call themselves married and represent themselves that way to the community.  Without a government stamp of approval, though, they are denied access to the privileges that sanctioned marriages enjoy.

If you don’t want the government to sanction same-sex marriage, then you need to dismantle all the government incentives for acquiring a sanctioned marriage.  Otherwise, you are denying equal access and protection.  The court recognized this today when it struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.

The second case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, involved California’s Proposition 8, which was a voter-passed constitutional amendment barring state recognition of same-sex marriage.  Proposition 8 was passed in response to California’s legalization of same-sex marriage.  It was a voter initiative, not a government initiative…and when a same-sex couple challenged its validity, the government refused to defend it.  In order to defend the law they helped enact, the original supporters of Proposition 8 stepped in to argue in its favor in the legal battle.  Their efforts were in vain, and the District Court overturned Proposition 8 for much the same reasons the SCOTUS today overturned DOMA.  The backers of Proposition 8 did not give up, filing an appeal.  The question that made it to the Supreme Court was whether they had the legal standing to do so, and the court ruled that they did not.

In order to have legal standing in this case, the backers of Proposition 8 would need to either be direct agents of the government, which they were not, or they would need to have been directly harmed by the overturning of Proposition 8.  They were not.  Those in favor of Proposition 8 and similar actions continue to argue that opening up the governmental definition of sanctioned marriage will have negative consequences on society as a whole.  I have not yet seen any valid evidence of this.  Arguments are made that the birth rate will go down, that the number of babies born out of wedlock will increase, that crime will increase, that all manner of evil things will ensue.  These arguments are purely speculative, and evidence is mounting against them.  Very similar arguments were made against interracial marriage, and they were just as frivolous.  Without demonstrable evidence of harm, nobody has the backing to continue to fight this legal battle.

Ultimately, marriage is a contract between consenting adults, as far as government should be concerned.  Nearly everybody agrees today that government should not be in the business of promoting religious values.  Government’s role is also not to promote social mores, even when those mores are held by a majority of citizens (because we are not a democracy, folks, and you really don’t want to be). Government’s role is to uphold contract law.  Ultimately, I believe this should extend to any relationship contract made between consenting adults, be it term marriage, line marriage, group marriage, or any other form it may take.  Government recognition of these contracts and their validity will not take away anything from believers in monogamous heterosexuality.  Instead, it will provide improved social security for the members of these families, improved care for the children of these families, improved access to medical care and education, all strong social benefits that everyone should support.

Today was another important step along the path.  The war is not over, but important battles have been won, and deserve celebration.