Monday, June 27, 2011

Self Evident

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

As you no doubt know, the preceding quote is from the Declaration of Independence. Our resignation letter from the British Empire, you might say. It speaks of what the American colonies believed were the rights of every citizen. This belief, that "all men are created equal" sits at the heart of the US Constitution. A document that attempts to codify the principles of fairness and equality for all Americans.

So why is it that, after 235 years, we are still struggling to live up to the ideals Thomas Jefferson put to paper all those years ago? In 2011 we are still debating whether particular Americans deserve the same rights as the rest. Should they be treated differently by the law? Do they have the right to do what their neighbors have always been free to do? Should you be payed the same wage as the person sitting next to you who does the same job? These questions, to me at least, are astonishing in that we are even asking them. I'm sure someone reading this is already trying to determine who I'm referring to in each question. But why? Does it matter? I don't recall the Constitution or it's amendments having any asterisks tucked away in the text.

Does it change the answer if I'm referring to an America who is gay as opposed to straight? Does it matter if it's an American man or woman? Does it matter if the American is lighter or darker skinned than me? The Constitution certainly wasn't written to only apply to certain Americans and not others. Each of us can point to someone we know who will eagerly agree that America is the land of equality and that everyone has the right to reach any level of society if they work for it. But if you mention homosexual or muslim, how many of them will get nervous and start looking for the right way to explain how that's different.

Personally I can't even grasp the idea of paying a qualified woman less than a man for the same job. It wouldn't even be an option to weigh! She's qualified, she has X years experience, so let's offer her X salary, based on that criteria. I don't get how someone can actually go out of their way and fight to prevent two gay Americans from marrying. I understand that some would have personal issues with it, perhaps, but to campaign to stop it? It has zero effect on them, so why do they spend their time and money trying to stop two people who love each other from formalizing their relationship as everyone else is allowed to do? Something every OTHER American is allowed to do.

America was built to be a meritocracy. A level playing field. The founders wanted to escape a world where the circumstances of your birth would be the prime determining factor in what you could do or become. They wanted to do away with the aristocracy and a class system that dictated who could do what and who deserved which rights. So they created a government built on these principles of equality and fair play. You can see it in the painstaking way the Constitution lays out the United States government, with careful checks and balances to spread the power. It's inefficient, but it's about as fair as any single document could manage. But leave it to us to screw it up!

How many years after we declared those "self evident" truths till we stopped the practice of owning other people? How long till we gave roughly half our population the right to vote? How long till we finally admitted that the color of your skin did not limit your Constitutional rights? And how much longer before we stop pretending that who a person is intimately attracted to has any bearing whatsoever on their worth or rights? How much longer till, as a nation, we finally stop dictating what makes a 'proper' marriage or a proper American?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

OK for Some

I think what most surprises me about this whole Anthony Weiner sexting scandal is how much press it's generated. There have been a lot of scandals in DC over the last decade, yet I don't recall any scandal since Clinton getting this much attention for this long. Why? Yes, I know, he sent salacious messages and some dirty pics to a few women he met via his Twitter and Facebook feeds. Yes, as a married man, this was wrong. But . . . I still don't see the fuel for this perpetual media machine. I suppose the highly partisan climate of the last three years is part of it. That's obviously behind the vocal, and quite hypocritical calls for Weiner to resign. I say hypocritical because there wasn't, and still isn't, much concern over Senator David Vitter's own scandal involving his frequenting the 'DC Madame'. One report I heard said that there was a record of a call by Vitter from the floor of the Senate during a vote! What makes it worse, in my estimation, is that he's another of those holier-than-though Republicans who constantly talks up the sanctity of marriage. Call me old fashioned, but I think a married, 'family values' Senator frequenting prostitutes is a bit more damning than sending a picture of your privates to a woman you've been flirting with online. Neither will win you any awards, but the latter has the distinct saving grace of not being illegal. And yet, Vitter is still a Senator and none of his Republican colleagues, so enraged by Weiner's indiscretion, have uttered a peep against him. Curious, eh?

I really do wonder how much of this is due to the 'ew' factor. Is it mostly because so many are shocked at the whole social networking angle of Weiners scandal? I think some people are just weirded out by the online affair aspect. Would there be as much attention if he had just been caught schtupping a member of his staff? I seriously doubt it. Especially considering how quickly the airwaves went deaf to the John Ensign scandal. Don't recall that? Let me refresh your memory. Senator Ensign only recently resigned from office, and rather suddenly at that. As luck would have it, his last day in office was the day before he was set to testify in front of the Senate Ethics Committee to face questions of not just his infidelities with a married staffer, but also the allegedly illegal ways he went about trying to keep it secret. Including violating lobbying laws to get the husband of the woman he was sleeping with, also a staffer and family friend, a lobbying gig after Ensign canned them both. (That's class, isn't it? Caught sleeping with a staffer so you fire her and her husband!) And let's not forget the roughly $90,000 he talked his wealthy parents into giving to his lover and her husband to sweep the whole thing under the rug. The Ethics Committee had so much evidence that, even after Ensign skipped out of the Senate, they still handed it all off to the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission for consideration of criminal charges. Now, call me partisan, but that's more than just a case of infidelity!

The problem, as I see it, is that we have never had an actual guide to go by when gauging the severity of personal indiscretions by politicians. It's always been a crap shoot. Often the deciding factor had more to do with the persons position, power and friends than what was actually done. My own personal yardstick starts with the most obvious question; were laws broken? Considering that we are talking about the people who draw up laws for the rest of us, it's only fair to expect them to be held to the same rules of conduct as the rest of the nation. Next would come professional ethics, such as the rules of the House and Senate. These I'm a little more flexible on, as some are obviously more trivial than others. But there's no question that getting down and dirty with your lover in your Capital Hill office would edge across the line into unacceptable behavior for a member of Congress. But a 10 minutes phone call from that same office or an email from a private account is more of a gray area. After all, most places of business recognize your right to an occasional few minutes of personal time. That doesn't mean anything goes, but there's more leeway there. It gets extremely gray after that, since much of the outrage seems to boil down to what each individual finds personally offensive and that's the very definition of subjective! What we most need, however, is consistency! Set some rules for behavior. Lay out what is your personal life and what is unarguably a professional matter. Personal mistakes in judgement may not say good things about you, but in the end, they are just that, personal. It's only when you cross the line into professional behavior that it becomes more than just a tabloid sensation.

Probably the biggest issue used to beat up Congressman Weiner is one that is the same for all of these scandals; lying. Once you get past the purely political criticisms and the disgust from those who can't get past the basic idea of sending anatomical pictures over the internet, you are left with this one complaint. For 10 days he stood in front of the cameras and lied about not sending the picture that had just gone public. He always hedged on the question of whether the picture was of him or not, which did stand out as a bit odd at the time. But should we really be surprised that he lied about it? And does a lie about a highly personal matter mean you are generally untrustworthy? Some would certainly hold the line and say that the lie means he can never be trusted again. I disagree. We all lie. Some of us are better than others about it, but we all lie occasionally. The two times we are most likely to lie are to protect someone, either physically or emotionally, and when we are protecting ourselves from personal embarrassment. And the more acute and potentially damaging that embarrassment, the more likely we are to lie. All of us. We may pretend we are pinnacles of virtue, but very few of us can truly claim innocence. And when all is said and done, if there is one place I would expect someone to lie, it's when a room full of reporters asks you if you sent a photo of your obviously happy johnson attempting to escape your underwear. I don't think that means you can never be trusted. I think that makes you human. That lie may be wrong, but it doesn't mean that same person will be any more likely to lie about a policy position than another politician. Believe me, I'd consider a law ejecting elected officials for documented lies! This would also have the added benefit of making term limits redundant by guaranteeing constant turnover in the houses of Congress.

As I write this, reports are trickling out that Congressman Weiner is resigning. On one level, it's certainly his choice what's best for him and his wife. On another level, I'm a bit ticked. I feel like he was forced into this, not because it was a heinous act, but because the nature of it made people uncomfortable and it was politically expedient for the Democrats to sacrifice him. By allowing and in fact enabling Weiner's critics the Democrats have once again capitulated to Republicans and validated their rampant hypocrisy. They could have at least put full pressure on Vitter to do the same! But I suppose Rachel Maddow was right, as she put it in one of her segments, I guess 'it's all right if you're a Republican'.