It’s like a penis…

A few months ago, I kicked around the idea of starting up a weekly limited feature focused on topics that some people might consider controversial, unpopular, or otherwise not appropriate for polite company. Nothing much came of the idea then, but it has stewed in my head ever since. This is the next of what I like to think will be a recurring series of Friday evening contemplations. If you’re easily offended, or for some reason have gotten the impression that your friends or family members have to agree with you on every conceivable topic, this might be a good time to look away. While it’s not my intention to be blatantly offensive, I only control the words I use, not how they’re received or interpreted.

I was raised Methodist, but as an adult the only interest I’ve really had in religion is an academic one. It’s hard, after all, to study any aspect of European (and by extension, American) history since the Romans pulled out without at least tangentially touching on the premise of Christianity and how it has been practiced and applied during the centuries.

My take is pretty consistently that religion, in spite of whatever uplifting and comforting elements it may have, has mostly been used as a cudgel against anyone who refused to live and die by its tenants. The Crusades, the European wars of religion, witch hunts, orthodoxy tests, and more laws based on “church teachings” than you could shake a forest of sticks at are just the most obvious examples. And that’s only including the violence-in-the-name-of-God delivered up under the auspices of Christianity. The rest of the pantheon is hardly less bloodthirsty.

Despite what the Moral Majority or whatever the religious right wants to call themselves these days says, the United States was not founded as a Christian country. I’m sorry. It just wasn’t. Saying that it was is simply presenting facts not in evidence. Actually, it’s flat out lying. The Founding Fathers went out of their way to codify the prohibition against establishing a state religion right there in the Bill of Rights. It follows directly from that prohibition that “because it’s what Jesus would want” is a singularly problematic reason to pass a law – it’s every bit as invalid as justifying your laws in the name of Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, or Ra. 

I know it’s a hard pill for the seriously religious to swallow, but it’s entirely possible to be an upright and honorable man without the threat of eternal punishment hanging over your head. In fact, if the only reason you’re “doing the right thing” is because you fear eternal hellfire, one might say you’re responding only to fear rather than any actual personal commitment to being morally upright. Being a decent person only because you’re under duress means you’re not, by definition, a decent person to begin with. 

I’m sure organized religion has many virtues for its practitioners. That’s fine. I don’t want to take any of those virtues away from them. They can rule their homes by the precepts of whatever God or gods they see fit. If they’re really feeling froggy, they can probably even gaggle up some like-minded folks and live their theocratic dream in a community setting. I am, however, going to insist that they don’t expect me to subscribe to and live quietly under some evangelical theocratic nightmare government they want to inflict on everyone else. I presume only the same liberty of conscience I extend to them. In fact, I insist on it… because otherwise, I’ll raise up and army myself and strike their tract-quoting, puritanical asses down.

As the poet said, “Religion is like a penis. It’s nice to have one and fine to be proud of, but don’t whip it out in public or shove it down someone else’s throat.” When you choose to ignore such wisdom, it makes it awfully difficult to see any significant difference between Christian extremists and the goddamned Taliban. The lesson, probably, is maybe try not to be some kind of asshole extremist and try some of that peace and tolerance that your God was so fond of talking about.

Pure partisan fuckery…

I was born and raised in the mountains of Western Maryland. There are certain inevitable assumptions made when someone describes himself like that, I suppose.  I might have spent my childhood ripping and running on Squirrel Neck Road, but that doesn’t mean I feel any need to present myself to the world as some kind of backwoods yokel Gomer. I didn’t then and I don’t now. 

Based on a lot of social and demographic factors, I should probably be expected to weigh in heavily against the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to fill a vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s an almost mortal lock that I won’t agree with how she interprets the law or the opinions she would write as a Justice. 

The thing is, none of that really matters. The simple fact is Judge Jackson is incredibly well qualified for the job. Whether her judicial philosophy conforms to the pleasure of Joe Biden, or Jeff Tharp, or Josh Hawley isn’t particularly relevant outside the spectacle of a confirmation fight in the halls of the U.S. Senate.

Barring the discovery of some truly monumental skeleton lurking in her closet, the Senate should confirm her nomination and put her on the Court. To claim otherwise is the kind of pure partisan fuckery of which we’ve already seen far too much.

The story they won’t cover…

At 5:00 this past Sunday morning, Cpl. Keith Heacook of the Delmar Police Department responded to a call for an assault in progress. An elderly couple was being beaten and this officer put himself between them and their attacker. According to reports, Cpl. Heacook was then violently attacked, overpowered, and kicked in the head repeatedly until he fell unconscious. 

A quick search shows that the “person” arrested in connection to this murder has a criminal record dating back to 2010, when he was 19 years old. Thirty-six items returned in a search of his involvement with criminal court cases paint quite a picture… although I’m sure great effort will be expended to portray him as victim of the system, result of a bad childhood, a young man who just needed a hug, or whatever touchy feely excuse for people who choose a life outside the law is in vogue today.

You won’t hear hours of reporting every day dedicated to the murder of Keith Heacook. You won’t see protests in the street or riots and looting of local downtown business districts. His death at the hands of a known criminal doesn’t match the popular narrative of violent police officers. It will be downplayed and ignored in favor of those reports that highlight only the story of race and policing the media is determined to sell. 

We’ll know the truth, though. Keith Heacook, a badged and sworn police officer, laid down his life in service to his community and in an attempt to protect the vulnerable. There’s no truer definition of hero.

That’s not how any of this works…

This morning, President Trump suggested via tweet that the general election in November should be delayed. Dude, seriously. That’s not how any of this works.

The United States has held its regularly scheduled elections through the Civil War, through the depths of the Great Depression, through two globe-spanning world wars, and yes, through past pandemics. 

Notwithstanding the fact that suspending elections is not among the powers of the president, the suggestion that doing so is necessary or proper flies in the face of both history and common sense. Suggesting that we as a country are somehow incapable of electing a leader in times of adversity defies the reality of the American electoral experience.

Let us assume for a moment that the election is delayed (something that would require changing current law that establishes election day as “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November”) – past November – past December – past January. Even in the absence of an election, an inauguration will take place on January 20th, so it’s not as if President Trump simply stays in office. His term expires on January 20th at noon. The office and powers of the presidency would then devolve to the next duly elected official in the line of succession – in this case that would most likely be the President pro tempore of the United States Senate since he’s in the middle of his term of office. We’ve skipped over the Speaker of the House of Representatives since her term would have expired along with President Trump’s on January 20th.

A suspended election doesn’t create an eternal Trump presidency, but it does make the creaking machinery of our Constitution work much harder than it needs to. Suggesting that such a thing is even a possibility belies both a tremendous lack of understanding of how elections in this country work and a fundamental disregard for the foundational institutions of the republic.

In support of natural consequences…

October 1st in Maryland is notable for really only one reason I can think of – a shit ton of new laws come into effect on this day every year. 2019 is no exception. As usual, there’s at least one of these new laws that leaves me baffled and vaguely annoyed.

Starting today here in the great State of Maryland, you have to be 21 years old to buy cigarettes. That’s fine. I suppose if you’re going to have an age limitation you have to set it somewhere, but let’s not pretend that setting it at 21 is anything other than arbitrary.

So, you’ve got to be 21 buy your pack of Marlboro’s or enjoy a cold beer. You can start working at age 14 (with a permit). You can get a driver’s license (provisional) at 16 years and six months of age. The state’s age of sexual consent is 16. You must be 18 to rent a hotel room for the night and 21 years old to rent a car.

At 18 a person is legally considered an adult. They’ve had 12 years of education made available to them. If the individual in question happens to be male, they’re eligible to be drafted into military service. It’s the age when we’ve collectively decided people are legally responsible for their own actions. It’s also the age we’ve decided that people are smart enough to begin voting.

Fundamentally I believe the question is whether we believe an 18 year old is an adult, capable of making responsible decisions, or do we not. As the age for “rites of passage” in our society slowly marches later and later into life, perhaps we should re-evaluate the definition of adulthood altogether since 18 is clearly arbitrary and we seem to be determined to surround the little darlings in bubble wrap, except when it’s time to decide who to fuck or whether they get to go to Southeast Asia to fight Mr. Nixon’s war. At exactly the time when we appear determined to defer adulthood well into people’s 20s, there’s a nascent move to lower the age of majority in order to allow even younger people to vote.

I find it the height of hypocrisy to believe an 18 year old (or someone younger) should be entrusted with the most valuable jewel of citizenship, yet also allowed to extend their childhood in almost every other meaningful way indefinitely into the future. People are either an adult, with the accompanying rights and responsibilities, or they’re not.

Creating a system in which people are adults for some purposes but not for others feels like creating an increasingly fractured and nonsensical universe out of something that really just shouldn’t be that damned complicated. Some people make shitty decisions whether their 18 or 58. Removing the natural consequences of those decisions isn’t doing any of us a favor.

Endangered species…

I’m almost universally indifferent to rules, regulations, and policies about people. Mostly I’ve grown up with and still believe that in the absence of special situations or circumstances, most grown adults should be able to tend to their own needs. It’s one of the defining characteristics of being a fully fledged adult across all the vast animal kingdom. Put another way, when bad things happen to people, you’ll rarely find me batting an eye.

There are easy ways to gin up my ire, though. This morning, the Department of the Interior managed it in spades when announcing rollbacks of key provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

Taking a hatchet to the regulations emplaned to protect our most threatened species and their habitat is one of those issues that will get my attention every time. It should get yours too. It should be hard to delist a species. It should be hard to encroach into protected areas. Determining what species and geography are protected and to what degree that protection extends should be an act of science, not an administrative policy decision carried out with little oversight and even less understanding of its consequences. As a professional bureaucrat, I can tell you from hard experience letting the scientists have a say is going to be better.

I want to say this one time, loud and clear, so there is absolutely no doubt about my position: If you are making decisions based on “left” policy dreams or “right” policy desires, you’re a bloody idiot. Make the decisions based on the best science we have available… and when, somewhere down the road, we have a better scientific understanding of the world, change again.

The cattle industry supports this deregulation effort. There are ways to protect critical habitat that won’t undermine the beef industry. The oil industry also supports reducing the effect of the Endangered Species Act. Here too there are ways to regulate that allows the United States to reap the benefit of it’s underground treasure without relegating species to museum pieces. I don’t oppose all regulation on spec, but I do oppose stupid, one size fits all regulation – just as much as a oppose stupid, once size fits none deregulation.

The best approaches are almost never an all or nothing proposition. Pretending that we can’t protect the environment and grow this economy makes you sound like a damned fool. Arguing that we can’t build another house for fear of killing every animal alive makes you sound like a hippy lunatic. There’s a middle way and we can find it.

My credentials as a meat eating, 4×4 driving, gun toting, flag waving Republican are beyond reproach. It’s why I have no compunction about splitting with the party on individual issues. My pro choice stance already makes me anathema in some fair number of Conservative circles, so standing apart on one more issue is hardly a deal breaker for me

I’ll fully endorse any legislative effort to “tighten” up the language of the Endangered Species Act to roll back these new policy changes and to make such changes harder to publish in the future… though I don’t hold out much hope of the current dysfunctional collection of representatives to get that job done any time soon.

Eight hours under gag…

As an employee of the Executive branch, I’m covered by what’s commonly known as the Hatch Act of 1939, otherwise known as An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities, or Public Law 76-252. The intent of the Hatch Act is fairly straightforward, even if the means and methods by which it is enforced are somewhat murky. The act, essentially, says that as a federal employee, I cannot seek election to a partisan office for the duration of my employment and more importantly that I can’t use my official position or government time and equipment for purposes of campaigning, fundraising, promoting, or engaging in political activity while I’m “on the clock.”

Old Man Hatch had a pretty good idea about establishing and keeping the core of the civil service reasonably non-partisan as we transact the day to day business of government. Personally, I’ve I’ve never seen an employee willfully undermining the executive branch while on the clock in my tenure serving under both Republicans and Democrats, but I don’t know if that’s because of the Hatch Act or because we started killing off the spoils system in 1883 with the Pendelton Act. Of course how “non-partisan” the bureaucracy is when it comes to which parties and candidates it supports in our spare time is wide open for debate.

The Office of Special Counsel, supreme adjudicator of all things Hatch Act, has a number of laundry lists filled with what various types of executive branch employee may or may not do. What most of them boil down to is “don’t advocate for a particular candidate or party on government time.” It seems like a reasonable rule. It’s why you find me posting at all during the typical weekday it’s a funny, funny meme or a news article. I try very hard to live within Hatch’s spirit and intent as well as within its letter.

I do, however, want the record to show that being Hatched makes sitting quietly on social media on days like today a monumental exercise in self restraint. Something for which I don’t think we get nearly enough credit every other November.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Meticulous devotion to the speed limit. OK, we get it. You’re an upright citizen, an honest taxpayer, and love your mother and apple pie. Those are all fine and good qualities to have, but it would be just terrific if you could move 20 feet to your right and have them somewhere other than puttering along in the passing lane. I know I’m a scofflaw and dangerous hoodlum, but Lord God Almighty just move your ass and let the rest of us get on with our day.

2. The definition of common knowledge. Any internet site that offers “12 things you didn’t know about X” is almost certain to involve more clicks than reading their article is worth. I usually avoid them to the maximum extent possible. Occasionally, though, some click bait is too tempting to resist. That usually involves the ones promising to teach me something new. Unfortunately, I read, I pay attention to details, and in general I’m aware of my surroundings. I also have a genuinely curious mind that thrives on the acquisition of new knowledge… So if you could go beyond general knowledge when creating your links to “things you don’t know about” that would be great

3. The incredible shrinking TP. I’m quite sure I didn’t suddenly start using more Charmin. I played along when they made the rolls narrower. Now it seems they’re putting less on each roll. The price, of course, is the same as it ever was. Maybe it would be ok to just plus up the price a few cents to keep up with inflation and stop fucking with it. Honest to god, I’m going to have to start researching where to get what use to be standard sized rolls of toilet paper. Then I’ll rent a warehouse and stockpile the damned stuff

Crime control…

You can’t spend an hour in America without hearing one side or the other make their pitch about gun control. I know the arguments on both sides well enough to quote them in my sleep. By contrast what I don’t hear almost any discussion about is crime control. Don’t let it be said I’ve ever shied away from stepping into whatever void I felt needed stepping into.

My simple proposal is that rather than controlling the inanimate object (i.e. the gun), perhaps we should refocus on controlling the people who use the object in a manner inconsistent with the manner allowed by law (i.e. to rape, rob, and murder). That leaves the vast majority of gun owners out of the equation because they tend largely towards using their weapons appropriately and in a reasonably safe manner.

Now here’s where things get heavy in the event I am empowered to pass legislation for a day. I propose the following tiered approach to addressing criminals who opt to use a firearm as they ply their trade:

1. If you possess or claim to possess a gun during commission of a crime, you receive the maximum penalty for the original crime plus an additional twenty years at hard labor (and I mean real Cool Hand Luke, chain-gang style labor). No option for parole.

2. If you display a gun (including realistic toys and BB or pellet guns) during commission of a crime, you receive the maximum penalty for the original crime plus an additional thirty years at hard labor. No option for parole.

3. If you fire a gun during commission of a crime, you receive the maximum penalty for the original crime plus an additional forty years at hard labor. No option for parole.

4. If you fire a gun during commission of a crime and the resulting projectile causes injury, whether intentional or unintentional, you receive the maximum penalty for the original crime plus an additional fifty years at hard labor. No option for parole.

5. If you fire a gun during commission of a crime resulting in the death of any individual, you have forfeit your right to enjoy the benefits of civil society and will be taken forthwith to the designated place of public execution where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead.

Now I know that doesn’t solve all the issues. Our best efforts are never going legislate away people who behave irresponsibly or the fact that sometimes legitimate accidents do happen. Still, it feels like a step towards making the penalty for committing crime with a firearm terrible enough to be a legitimate deterrent to many if not most who aren’t deranged or otherwise determined to do harm.

Maybe it’s my wide libertarian streak showing, but if we’re going to get into the business of banning things (which we are), let’s be about the business of banning specific actions (and then enforcing those ruthlessly) instead of outlawing broad categories of things. Our long history as a country has proved that unilateral bans don’t work as intended and generally only lead to “bigger and badder” levels of crime (I’m looking at you here alcohol and drugs). So since we know up front that’s not going to work out like we might plan, let’s go ahead and at least start by pummeling the current crop criminals into submission before we set out to create a whole new class of criminals by even more blanket bans.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Grown adults. I’m totally on board with kids being excited to see the snow. I’ll even forgive students who are excited at getting the day off. What I don’t think I will ever come to grips with are grown ass adults who crowd around the window eyes agog whispering and tee-heeing. Yes, it’s snowing. No, it’s not all that exciting. If you don’t stare askance out the window on a typical rainy day, there’s not much call to do it just because the temperature happens to be below 32 degrees. I know not everyone has gainful work to do on the day before a Thanksgiving, but I’m over here madly trying to get something wrapped up and off my desk before everyone makes a break for it so if you could at least pretend to be productively engaged that would be great.

2. Internet legal experts. You know, I’d have a lot more respect for the deluge of legal “opinions” smothering the country if I had any sense at all that the people behind those opinions had any sense of the purpose of a grand jury or the basic concepts of how the legal system works. Although I taught basic civics, I’d never have the audacity to claim undisputed knowledge about the intricacies and vagaries of the American judicial system. I do however know enough to be certain I’m not expert. That’s why I’ve not made many comments on the particular case du jure. While I haven;t hidden my opinion, I opted not to take to the interwebs to dazzle the world with it. I’d far rather stay quiet and be thought a fool than open my mouth and remove all doubt. It’s a shame the average American internet poster isn’t as circumspect.

3. Email. I was away from my desk most of last week, so when I stumbled in to the office on Monday I had approximately 900 emails waiting for me. Of those, I reduced 600 that were either overcome by events, spam, messages I was copied on for no apparent reason, or otherwise emails that didn’t require an action on my part besides hitting delete. Of the 300 remaining messages, 2/3 were of minor importance directly to me, were confirmations, status updates, or otherwise information that required little more than a “yes,” “no,” or “acknowledged” in way of response. That left approximately 100 messages that legitimately needed my attention, that required substantial thought, or that I needed to farm out to others in an effort to generate a response. We all could have saved a lot of time this week if the first 600 “so what” emails had never been sent. We could have saved a little more time if we collectively stopped to consider if we really needed to send any one of the next 200 messages. More importantly, I wouldn’t be scrambling around at the end of the 3rd day of mailbox clearing trying to respond to the 100 that really mean something if I hadn’t needed to wade through the other 800 emails to find those little gems. My point? Email is a tool, but you don’t have to be. Please use your distribution lists and the reply all button for good instead of evil.