Archive for May, 2010

Gitmo for Perverts: The Supremes Do It Again

May 18, 2010

This week’s Supreme Court calendar is a win-some-lose-some scenario. It’s unconstitutional to lock up juveniles for life with no parole, for any crime that does not involve homicide, they tell us. So far, so good. But it’s okay, they announce, to keep sex offenders locked up indefinitely, even after they have served out their sentences. Not so good. I’m not necessarily objecting to the result. If we really don’t know how to rehabilitate sex offenders, life behind locked doors may be the only solution. My problem is with the procedure.

If we really believe that sex offenders cannot safely be returned to live among us, our elected representatives in the legislative branch should say so, by making such offenses punishable with life-without-parole. Then that sentence should be imposed by the judicial branch after a proper trial. That’s called due process, without which, according to the Fifth Amendment, nobody should be deprived of life, liberty, or property.

If we do not trust out elected legislators to accomplish this task within the bounds of the Constitution, I think it’s fair to wonder why. I think the Framers had a lot more faith in states, and their governments, and their lawmakers, than we do. Admittedly, I’m from Illinois, which is probably one of the worst of this year’s horrible examples. I wouldn’t trust our legislature to protect me from an invasion of the Iowa Homosexual Conspiracy. But in fact, most of our state governments have fallen a far distance from the 1780s. It’s hard to believe in subsidiarity when our governments get less competent and more corrupt the closer they get to home.

The legality of keeping “unlawful combatants” locked up indefinitely without trial is still being worked out. But the sex offender decision makes the outcome a foregone conclusion. If we can do this to an American citizen after he is convicted in a proper trial in an American court, we can do it to a nameless foreigner, even without trial or after a determination of innocence.

This is an odd decision, kind of like Kelo vs. City of New London ( In both of these cases, I was amazed to find myself agreeing with Scalia, Alito, and Thomas in the minority. However, given the position of that august trio on the Gitmo detainees, I think their position on limiting governmental power is not a hardline principled one. They just draw the line a bit short of where I do. I can hardly wait for the Season Finale.


If You’re Overqualified, You’re Qualified

May 17, 2010

While running errands this afternoon, I had occasion to listen to Professor Jonathan Walton, who teaches Religious Studies at U. of California Riverside, pontificating about the evils of omitting degrees and experience on one’s resume (see: No, he wasn’t talking about omitting felony convictions. He really was saying that a Ph.D. who applies for a job as a stockboy is being unethical if he omits the Ph.D. from his resume, even if nobody is hiring Ph.D.s and the stockboy position is the only one out there.

Let’s get the obvious straw people out of the way. Of course it’s unethical (not to mention illegal) to pad one’s resume with credentials and experience one has not in fact earned. And of course it’s illegal and unethical to omit, say, a record as a sexual child abuser from one’s application for a position in a day care center. It’s certainly unethical (dunno about illegal) to neglect to mention that one’s previous employment was terminated as a result of blowing up the cafeteria. And, OTOH, it is also illegal for the prospective employer to refuse to hire an applicant on grounds of being “overqualified”, when in fact that is merely code for “too old.” It is not illegal, but is perhaps unethical, for an employer to turn down an applicant merely because the applicant has too many other options and is therefore in too good a bargaining position vis-à-vis the employer.

What information does the prospective employer have a right to from a job applicant? It’s simple: can s/he do the job? That covers the obvious stuff, like high school diploma, and college degree with the appropriate major, and in some instances advanced degree of the appropriate sort, as well as a certain amount of relevant job experience, plus no felony record, plus having left one’s previous job on good terms with the employer. The employer may have the applicant pass a test for the appropriate skills. That’s it. It is well-settled law that the applicant’s family status, religion, and ethnic background are none of the boss’s business. If the applicant can somehow manage to disguise his/her gender or race, that would be legitimate too. A person who applies for a job is not undertaking to marry the boss’s daughter or son.

And the fact that, in addition to being able to do the job s/he is applying for, the applicant can also swim the English Channel, perform marriages in three states, remove your appendix, and/or prepare desserts in a gourmet restaurant, is none of the employer’s business. The employer is entitled to a person with the skills, credentials, and experience necessary to do the job—not to the corporation’s ideal of the perfect switchboard operator/waittress/stockboy/whatever. Sorry, Professor Walton, you blew that one.

Red Emma

The Vanishing American Protestant (or: There I Stood…)

May 11, 2010

Everybody suddenly seems to be worried, or at least startled, to discover that, if Obama gets his way, the Supreme Court will become utterly devoid of Protestants. Six Catholics, three Jews. One commenter has even, half-seriously, suggested that we should expand the size of the Court to accommodate more representatives of the religious diversity of America. (Nothing in the Constitution would prevent it. The Court hasn’t always been nine people. But I digress.)

A few years back, NORC claimed to have discovered that Protestantism was disappearing in the US. They based this concern on the fact that some rather large proportion of poll respondents, when asked for their religious affiliation, didn’t say “Protestant.” (Most of them called themselves “Christian.”) I could have scared them even worse by referring them to one of my students (a card-carrying Baptist, BTW) who once asked me “What’s a Protestant?” In short, the phenomenon that scared NORC wasn’t the disappearance of American Protestants, but a huge uptick in their ignorance of church history, including the whole idea of Protestantism itself. Which shouldn’t distress anybody all that much—it merely parallels the uptick in historical ignorance, and ignorance generally. Nobody worries about people like another of my students, an otherwise well-educated Caucasian woman who knew that the US had been involved in some kind of war in the 1940s, but didn’t know who was on the other side, or who won.

Diana Butler Bass ( laments the loss of “Protestant sensibilities.” She’s right, of course, but she’s also being insufficiently specific. The next “Protestant” on the court will probably be a member of A.M.E. Zion or some other African-American-connected church that doesn’t exactly echo the Protestant sensibilities Bass misses. What has really gone missing from much of our culture is the Reformation. Doctor King (speaking of African-American churches) started life as Michael. He didn’t really discover the Reformation until a family trip to Germany turned him on to Martin Luther and “Here I stand…” Obviously it made a major impression on him, but he may be the last of the great American Protestant thinkers. Most of the African-American churches draw on the tradition of the Exodus, not that of the Reformation. And most of the non-Black Protestant churches, if they think of themselves that way at all, define Protestant merely as “Christian but not Catholic or Orthodox”—what doctors call a diagnosis of exclusion. “We’re Protestant because we don’t venerate Mary and the saints and we don’t chant at our services…”

To the extent that “Protestantism” is disappearing from the US, it is doing so in a cultural rather than a demographic sense. And, yes, in an institution like the Supreme Court, that matters. But if it took us this long to notice, it will take us a lot longer to revive American understanding of our collective religious history, assuming we are really motivated to do it at all. Assuming, that is, that we can still conceive of Protestantism (and, for that matter, Judaism, Catholicism, and Islam) as a theological and cultural world-view, rather than merely a demographic and political marker.

Jane Grey

Stranger in a Strange Land

May 1, 2010

or: I have always been dependent on the strangeness of kindred

Not to be confused with Heinlein’s masterwork of the same title. What I’m looking at is Claude Steele’s work on “stereotype threat.” This is an awkward shorthand way of saying that “when a person’s social identity is attached to a negative stereotype, that person will tend to underperform in a manner consistent with the stereotype…[due] to a person’s anxiety that he or she will conform to the negative stereotype.” (see

What rouses such anxieties? One of the biggies is finding yourself in a context where you are the only [person of color/woman/LGBT/person with a disability/ etc-etc], or anyway one of a very few, around mostly “normal” people (white straight able-bodied males, usually.) Steele, of course, is mostly dealing with race, because, as an African-American academic, this is what affects him and his students.

But That Other Blog, quoting , tells us that the New York Times can have the same effect on “devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans” and other non-secularist non-liberal types. My first impulse (as a Hispanic Jewish woman) is to say “ain’t that too damn bad.” I know this is a failure in charity (as a former Catholic, I sometimes fall into such locutions.) An Orthodox Jewish Texan gun owner who feels bad undoubtedly feels just as bad as a Hispanic Jewish woman, and has just as little control over it.

But Steele’s analysis applies a lot more broadly than he intends, and needs to be more carefully examined for that reason. It’s the other side of identity politics. Identity politics fails to account for the complexity of almost everybody’s identity. So does “stereotype threat.” Everybody has an “identity.” In fact, everybody has at least two or three of them. Most Americans have lots of them. And there is a negative stereotype attached to almost every identity.

“The Episcopal Church Welcomes You. The Anglican Communion, not so much.”
“What do you call somebody who hangs out with musicians?” “A drummer.”
“If you weren’t Jewish, what religion would you like to be?” “Lubavitch.”
“What do you call a middle-aged atheist with a wife and two school-aged kids?” “A Unitarian.” I’m just rummaging in the grab bag of my recent memory for negative stereotypes attached to some rather uncommon identities, and these popped up right away. You probably have a bunch of them on tap too. Feel free to share them. We all need a good laugh once in a while. Remember Stan Freberg’s routines on substituting “Swiss” for the ethnic minority of the week, so as not to offend anybody? That continued to be funny right up until a few months ago when Moammar Ghadafi declared Switzerland Libya’s Public Enemy Number One, for reasons I don’t quite remember now.

See also , which specifically references “the mass media, where, for instance, on prime-time television, between two-thirds and three-fourths of the characters are male, and almost all the female characters are young, sexually attractive, and unmarried. The ratio of 1 woman to 2, 3, or 4 men is a fairly popular one, and turns up in some surprising places. Until civil rights legislation finally took hold, it was the accepted ratio, set by the admissions office,
between male and female students at Harvard, for instance, and between men and women at many other institutions of higher education.”

See also and the responses thereto. When 53% of the world’s population can be made to feel like a minority, there is something wrong.

But of course, it isn’t only (only!?) 53% of the world’s population. It’s just about everybody.Religious believers feel negatively stereotyped in the mainstream US media. Non-believers feel negatively stereotyped in the political arena. In various places, one can feel negatively stereotyped for being married, single, celibate, childless, parents, gay, straight, tall, short, fat, thin, “normal” weight, literate, illiterate, and so on. The easiest way to avoid “stereotype threat,” of course, is to hang out only with people as similar to oneself as possible. In as complex a society as ours, surrounded by an even more complex system of media representation, that’s just about impossible. All I have to do to feel alienated (that’s really what we’re talking about here) is watch one hour of television, any channel, any time. It’ll probably work for you, too, whoever you may be.

You will not see yourself in the mass media. The people you do see will be different enough to make you feel insecure.

So Dr. Steele is making a more universal case than he intended, and therefore the remedies he proposes are insufficient.“Stereotype threat” is the frakking human condition. So how do we deal with it? “I’m just a poor wayfarin’ stranger, wanderin’ through this world of woe,” the spiritual says. “World of woe” is going a bit far for my liking, but “wayfaring stranger” makes perfectly good sense. From the moment I recognize that mama is different from me, and can’t be relied on to be there and provide what I need all the time, a wayfaring stranger is what I am, what we all are. Each of us is a prisoner in the solitary confinement of our own skull.

Grace is what enables us to reach out and make contact, and imagine we understand what other people are feeling. Grace is what enables us to accept people who are irretrievably different from ourselves, and to accept ourselves as being irretrievably different from them, and to form communities with those people which generate the fewest possible stereotypes and threats. The only place you will ever see yourself is in a mirror, which is not a great place to hold a stimulating conversation.Everyplace else, what you see is Other People. No doubt Sartre was right in saying that’s one definition of hell. It is also a definition of heaven. It is the only heaven we can ever expect.

Jane Grey