Saturday, October 09, 2004

Must-Read Article on Same-Sex Marriage

Interested in the political fracas surrounding same-sex marriage? Then read this article by M.V. Lee Badgett, which examines the latest social trends in European countries which recognize same-sex unions. Badgett brings to the debate an unprejudiced eye, a long-overdue dose of common sense, and a truckload of hard data.

(By the way, this website features several other scholarly articles, mostly in that unfortunate genre known as "queer theory." Ignore them. No one outside academia ever gave a flying damn about Michel Foucault.)

Friday, October 08, 2004

Presidential Debate #2: A few observations

I used to teach Freshman Writing 101. As far as I can tell, among this year's major-party presidential and vice-presidential candidates, only Dick Cheney could have passed that course.

The odd thing is that if you actually read tonight's debate transcript, you'll find that most of what Bush says makes sense. Problem is, it never makes sense while he's saying it.

Naturally, since Bush had the stronger position, Kerry won the debate -- but again, just barely. However, Bush probably had the evening's best moment, when he asked Gibson if he "needed wood." You know, I think the problem with politics today is that it doesn't have nearly enough lewd frat-house humor. Way to change the tone, Dubya. Real friggin' classy.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Blaming the Victim: Another train wreck in Houston

The Houston MetroRail system had another accident yesterday evening, when a northbound train struck a pedestrian. After less than a year of operation, MetroRail's crash tally now stands at a whopping sixty-three.

According to the Houston Chronicle, "It was unknown later Wednesday whether [the victim] would be cited for the accident, officials said."

It seems awfully callous to blame the victim, but I'm afraid these officials have no other choice. How else are they to prove that light rail is safe?

Hat tip: Houston resident J.K. Jager keeps track of MetroRail mishaps here.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

About Last Night: Edwards and Cheney square off on Gay rights

Mark Twain once wrote, "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to." As last night's vice-presidential debate made clear, when it comes to Gay and Lesbian issues, both major parties have good reason to turn a bright crimson.

Watching Dick Cheney squirm on the subject of "gay marriage" (his words) should have been painful for any American. It reminded us all that anti-Gay rhetoric has a harmful effect not just on GLBT individuals, but on their families. As the father of a Lesbian daughter, Cheney has doubtless found himself at odds with friends and co-workers on this issue, and it's impossible not to suspect that some of his defensiveness might come from finding himself always on the losing side (within his own party, at least) of this profound cultural debate. Yet an examination of the debate transcript reveals Cheney hasn't wavered from his position four years ago, when he stated that "Freedom means freedom for everybody." The money quote, this time, was that "People ought to be free to choose any arrangement they want. It's really no one else's business." It stands as an implicit rebukes to Virginia's GOP-controlled General Assembly, which recently declared private arrangements (including legal contracts) between same-sex partners null and void, therefore everybody's business. Cheney is currently the only mainstream American conservative to speak out against such measures, even obliquely.

A sitting vice-president rarely criticizes his boss, let alone his whole party. Yet last night Cheney rejected the anti-Gay politics of Bush and the GOP, and blazed a trail of his own. First, he came out quietly against the Federal Marriage Amendment. "Traditionally," said the vice-president, "that's been an issue for the states. States have regulated marriage, if you will. That would be my preference." An equally rare moment occurred a few moments later, as Cheney abruptly pulled out of attack-dog mode to thank his opponent "for the kind words he said about my family and our daughter." Cheney may have stated, "I support the president," but it's clear that he doesn't, not in this instance. By articulating that opposition in compassionate, conservative terms, he proved himself a mensch.

John Edwards didn't waver from his position, either -- though perhaps he should have. His chirpy remark, "I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, and so does John Kerry," was unalloyed anti-Gay boilerplate from the religious right. We might do well to remember that Cheney never uttered these words or anything remotely like them during this debate. To be fair, Edwards also stated his opposition to a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage (as Cheney did), as well as support of domestic partner benefits (an issue on which Cheney voiced neither approval nor disapproval). But Edwards wouldn't go so far as to say that a private contract between two individuals is nobody's business but their own: That basic insight, it seems, lies beyond his ken. The advantage goes to Cheney, if not to the GOP.

What John Edwards managed to establish last night, alas, is that a Kerry-Edwards administration won't necessarily be any better for Gay and Lesbian Americans than four more years of George W. Bush. It might even be worse, in a way, because it would remove from power one of the few elected officials in this country to have an openly Gay or Lesbian family member, and who is truly sympathetic on these issues. For people like Kerry and Edwards, GLBT issues seem purely theoretical: One suspects Kerry never hears the word "Gay" unless the word "vote" follows it. The Cheney family, on the other hand, has experienced anti-Gay discrimination firsthand. Perhaps that's why Cheney's statements on this issue approach classical Libertarianism, while Kerry and Edwards have adopted typical anti-Gay sloganeering.

Now that we've seen Kerry's true colors, there's no reason for Gay and Lesbian voters to prefer either mainstream political party this election year. For practical purposes, the Republican and Democratic positions on Gay rights are equally embarrassing. But at least Cheney has the common decency to speak out against them -- and even, in his own reticent way, to blush at what his party has become. Good for him.

Footnote (7:45 a.m.): Several observers of this debate, including IndeGayForum's Steve Miller, saw Edwards's mention of Mary Cheney's sexual orientation as a sly ad hominem attack, designed to expose an apparent skeleton in the Cheney family closet. Miller believes Edwards was insinuating something along the lines of, "Hello, socially conservative-leaning independents. Did you know about this." Meanwhile, Cheney, in keeping with his essential circumspection and personal reticence, did not mention his daughter's sexual orientation, choosing instead to frame his position in philosophical terms. Millions of Americans, especially social moderates in the heartland, may not have known that Mary Cheney was Gay until Edwards mentioned the fact. So under the subtle guise of a compliment, Edwards not only "outed" the entire Cheney family on national television, but also implicitly attributed Cheney's argument in favor of privacy and liberty to naked self-interest. (When Edwards pats his adversaries on the back, he usually finds a way to slip in a knife.)

But something more nefarious may be at work here. Edwards's actual words were, "let me say first that I think the vice president and his wife love their daughter. I think they love her very much. And you can't have anything but respect for the fact that they're willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter, the fact that they embrace her [emphasis added]." Notice his repeated use of the qualifier "I think." It's not accidental -- when Edwards talks about "millions of parents like that who love their children, who want their children to be happy," he leaves it out. The phrase, as he deploys it, connotes "anything but respect" for Cheney.

By using "I think," Edwards implied that we can't say for certain whether the Cheneys love their Lesbian daughter. After all, they're Republicans (and worse, they're heartless Cheneys). If we watch The Daily Show or SNL, we know that these people can't truly love or accept anybody. Plus, the GOP is so hostile to Gay and Lesbian people that any parent with GLBT offspring must immediately join the Democrats, or be unloving traitors to the welfare of their child. It's beyond condescending for a perfect stranger to claim that "he thinks" a parent might possibly love his or her progeny -- and if the implication was in any way intentional, Cheney has every right to knock Edwards flat on his back.

Perhaps my casual acceptance of Gay people on the one hand, and my awareness of Democratic hauteur on the other, kept me from seeing through Edwards's crocodile tears right away. If Edwards intended to tarnish Cheney's reputation by "outing" his daughter, or by suggesting that Cheney's conservatism automatically makes him less than a loving parent, he's even more reprehensible, and Cheney more gracious and admirable, than I initially thought. But no matter how you look at this exchange, last night Dick Cheney proved himself a mensch. We need more Dick Cheneys.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Veep Debate

I don't understand how Andrew Sullivan came to his conclusion about tonight's vice-presidential debate, unless it's some long-delayed April Fool's prank. By most nonpartisan standards Cheney comes off as a better debater than either Bush or Kerry, let alone Edwards.

Moderator Gwen Ifill gave Edwards every conceivable advantage -- mostly softball questions for the Democrat, more hardball questions for the Republican. She never directed a question to Cheney by mistake, but did so for John Edwards on two occasions. Late in the debate, she even gave Edwards an additional response period he wasn't entitled to. This woman likes to hear Edwards talk, whether he has something to say or not. Of course, Cheney received no such privileges: When he was subjected to a vicious personal smear regarding Halliburton, he had to take time out of another question to answer it. Ifill was consistently courteous and deferential to Edwards (even when he not so courteously interrupted Cheney), but her two unscripted remarks to Cheney -- "Well, that's all you got" and "That's it?" -- were curt, contemptuous, and downright rude. If ever you doubted the media's liberal bias, gentle reader, Ifill's treatment of Cheney was the smoking gun you were waiting for. But even discounting Edwards's "preferred status" in this debate, his efforts were scandalously bad.

Cheney gave a substantive and professional, even presidential performance, but remained reticent when it came to intensely personal questions. He is not a touchy-feely guy, which makes it fairly easy for the Left to call him an ogre. Meanwhile, Edwards was slick and vacuous, very skillful at skirting the issues without addressing them, and pretty good at subtly distorting Cheney's remarks and making subtle ad hominem smears. (He also tended to save his slimier attacks so that they followed Cheney's own responses, thus ensuring -- or so he thought -- that the vice-president would not have the time to address and rebut them.)

On the whole, Cheney's approach to debating was fact-based: He didn't assume his audience knew everything it needed to make the best-informed decision possible, and proceeded to give detailed information to back up his claims. He was well-briefed, both on his opponent's record and his own. Although he claimed Edwards was misinformed or just plain wrong, he never attacked his opponent's character by calling him a liar or a thief. But the facts didn't seem to matter for Edwards, who coasted through on charisma, charm, and an ongoing appeal to viewers' emotion and prejudice. He offered vague evidence from time to time, but preferred to ply his lawyer's brew of folksy sayings, homespun anecdotes, and scabrous attacks. For me, Edwards's defining remark was: "The American people saw John Kerry on Thursday night. They don't need the vice president or the president to tell them what they saw." Yet it was Cheney who gave information to American viewers and asked them to make up their own minds. Edwards asked viewers simply to trust what they saw on TV (and in context, his final comments invoking "the glow of the television" comprised the debate's funniest moment). His motto might well have been: Don't think, react.

It's no surprise, then, that the one area in which Edwards excelled would have been immediately apparent to television audiences: Edwards was likeable, in a take-me-home-and-spank-me way. He spoke directly to the camera, while Cheney made eye contact only occasionally. Edwards's body language was more personable, his facial expressions friendlier. Edwards's microphone worked, while Cheney's tended to cut out. But most importantly, Edwards has a million-dollar smile that helps viewers forgive him, even when he calls Cheney an outright liar, or interrupts him mid-sentence, or appears confused and flustered over simple foreign-policy issues, or violates basic terms of the debate three times in less than two minutes. Perhaps Edwards earned the right to display a tiny Bush-like smirk from time to time, though Cheney kept his own infamous snarl largely in check.

My own impression is that Cheney wiped the floor with "Little John" on substance, and that his deficiencies in style were not severe enough to neutralize his basic strengths. Yet with the notable exception of Iraq (where he called Edwards, quite rightly, on multiple factual inaccuracies), Cheney couldn't really go for the kill without appearing mean-spirited. Edwards claimed that the Bush administration tried to cut combat pay for troops in Iraq. He claimed that the Bush administration failed to fund the "No Child Left Behind" program. Both statements were demonstrably false: The alleged "cuts" in combat pay and education were actually increases, though the increases weren't as large as some lawmakers proposed. (This is tantamount to the old GOP trick of classifying relatively small tax cuts as tax increases.) Cheney never called him on that. Edwards's audacious stand against drug companies and health-care providers was, I suspect, an invitation for Cheney to kick him to the curb even further -- which, of course, would have allowed the Left to announce that our current veep is indded the treacherous ogre they've been claiming all along. Cheney didn't respond to that, either, but he should have.

It seems to me that these so-called "debates" tend to favor not the candidate with the stronger position, but the candidate with the weaker one. Perhaps this is because we Americans are just too polite to tell other people that they're wrong, and we don't like it when other people do the job for us. It's not nice to tell people they just screwed the pooch. It goes against our principle of rooting for the underdog, even if the underdog happens to enjoy that status because the facts are simply not on his/her side.

"Oh, and, er, by the way ...." During the first Bush/Kerry debate, Kerry stated, "I think the United States should have offered the opportunity to provide the nuclear fuel, test them, see whether or not they were actually looking for it for peaceful purposes." Tonight, John Edwards said, "Iran has moved forward with its nuclear weapons program. They're more dangerous today than they were four years ago." He also noted that "The reality about Iran is that Iran has moved forward with their nuclear weapons program on their watch."

Unless Edwards's remarks are a "smokescreen" (to quote Cheney), they seem to indicate a major reversal in Kerry's foreign policy since Thursday night. So does Kerry believe Iran is dangerous, or does he still believe that Americans should test Iran's intentions by giving the mullahs nuclear fuel? Inquiring minds want to know.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Crash Into Me: The Perils of Light Rail

My hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, is thinking about replacing its current bus system (which runs empty most of the time), with a new, exciting form of mass transit: Light Rail! Thanks to J.K. Jager in Houston, Texas -- whose hilarious blog may be found here -- I've had a chance to look at Houston's attempts to introduce the "light rail" concept to its downtown area.

The wrecks began in December of 2003, as Houston Metro began testing the track along the seven-and-a-half mile line. By the 19th, three had occurred; by New Year's Day, when the system opened, the tally was up to five. Then things got really bad, as the "light rail" corridor promptly turned into a demolition derby. On St. Patrick's Day, the trains whacked their first pedestrian, an elderly janitor. After less than a year of continuous "light rail" service, the official "crash count" now stands at sixty-one. Update (10/5): Oops -- make that sixty-two. A MetroRail train struck a pedestrian shortly before I started writing this post.

Headlines from the Houston Chronicle tell the sorry story: "2 hurt in accident between car, light rail train," "Truck driver seriously hurt in MetroRail crash," "Man hospitalized after being hit by Metro train," "Fifty-eighth light rail incident sends woman to hospital." One crash involved a vehicle full of county prisoners, six of whom were injured.

Combine the constant threat of crashes, terror alerts, and a few occasions when stalled trains brought passenger service to a standstill, and it's easy to see why Houston residents are starting to avoid MetroRail public transit like a plague. When nine bus routes were transferred to light rail in June, ridership on those lines dropped an average of eighteen percent. On a few bus lines, the number of passengers dropped by nearly half.

Now, if you were a government bureaucrat, and you had designed and implemented a light rail system which made downtown Houston more dangerous and led frustrated passengers to abandon mass transit, what would you do? Resign in shame after a tearful apology? State that light rail was a bad idea from the start? Announce plans to dismantle the system and replace it with safer bus lines? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, gentle reader, you're not thinking like a government official.

What you do, of course, is expand the light rail system. MetroRail has proposed two new lines for the near future, to be subsidized with state and federal money. Meanwhile, city officials are desperately trying to prove that the light rail system isn't an enormous boondoggle that endangers citizens' health and safety. Of the sixty-one (er ... sixty-two) incidents, only one has been blamed on the driver of a light rail train -- a statistic which officials cited as proof of the system's "safe" operating record. The city even commissioned a special study, stating that the light rail corridor was prone to collisions prior to light rail: Clearly there was nothing wrong, and nothing to fear. The people could go about their business as usual, assuming the choo-choo didn't mow them down before they got there.

In mid-September, the chairman of Houston Metro officially praised light rail employees for reducing the number of accidents per month, from a high of eleven in March (an average of nearly three per week) to only four in August. However, on the day before this momentous announcement, MetroRail trains were involved in two separate crashes, one of them with a pedestrian.

Every few months or so, the urban planners on Charlottesville's city council consider a light rail system, just like Houston's. The city doesn't need it, and I don't think most residents even want it. But because we're governed by a firmly entrenched Democratic machine, we taxpayers end up paying for a lot of things we don't want and will never use. Light rail just might be the next big thing. As our own Dave Matthews might say, "Crash into me."

Update (8:30 p.m.): A reader sent this link to a USA Today article, which contains this fascinating passage: "Nationwide, light-rail trains were involved in 815 accidents from 1997 through 2001, or about 13 a year for each system." Talk about hard-hitting journalism.

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