No, we don’t have to enforce all the laws – we can’t

One of the ways people justify evil things while still believing that they themselves are good people is to hide behind the rules.  “Yes, it’s terrible that families are being separated, but those parents *broke the law.*”

There are a thousand good counterarguments to that including that in many cases, no, they didn’t.  Seeking asylum is a protected legal right, even if a person came here illegally.  Not only that, but it’s illegal to punish an asylum seeker for coming in illegally if they can show good cause why they didn’t come the legal way.  Since the US has been sending asylum seekers away from official points of entry, and since the asylum application process at a US embassy can take years, it’s not surprising that people fleeing for their lives cross the border illegally.

But apart from that, there’s a stunning hypocrisy when “law and order” people wholeheartedly support a president who’s claimed the ability to pardon himself, and who has pardoned a sheriff for flagrantly abusing the law.  The law, it seems, only matters when you already don’t like the people who are breaking it.

In reality, most people break the law on a regular basis and suffer no consequences whatsoever.  Even if we set aside traffic infractions like speeding and jaywalking, crossing the border without permission is a misdemeanor.  Other misdemeanors include disorderly conduct, vandalism, underage drinking, and public intoxication.  If you drank before you reached legal age, or you’ve ever gotten into a loud argument in a public place or stumbled out of a bar to a waiting Uber or a sober friend’s car, then you are just as much of a criminal as someone who crosses the US border without permission.

The truth is, our system would grind to a screeching halt tomorrow if we decided that every single law on the books had to be enforced to its fullest extent.  For starters, do you really want to prosecute stranded hurricane victims for shoplifting food?  If my house is on fire and I run onto my neighbor’s property, should I be taken in for trespassing?

No matter how carefully rules are written, there are always going to be points when exceptions are needed.  Yes, we should work as many of the needed exceptions as possible into the rules themselves, to avoid favoring only people judges and juries find sympathetic (mostly white guys).  But that effort will never be perfect.

Not only that, but a certain amount of discretion is built into the system at every step. Imagine that every single person who’s pulled over for a traffic offense must be given a ticket.  No more letting people off with a warning, no matter how clean their record is or what other mitigating factors exist.  We’ll probably need to hire more cops just to keep up with the paperwork, and more judges for traffic court.

Now extend that further.  If all laws must be enforced, no exceptions, then plea bargains are no longer a thing.  The state now has to spend money prosecuting cases it can’t necessarily win, because there’s no motivation for anyone to plead guilty to a lesser offense.  If “all laws have to be enforced,” then they have to be charged with every single offense that the evidence supports, regardless of what they’ll plead guilty to.

This also destroys any concept of getting immunity in exchange for testimony.  If you’ve got to prosecute the small-time drug dealer regardless, he’s not going to give evidence against his boss or his boss’s boss.

So, no, we don’t need to enforce all the laws all the time.  We couldn’t possibly, and we’d break the system if we tried.


Show Up and Vote

Back on May 21, Jim Wright (@Stonekettle) posted a long thread about how Republicans control such a large portion of government because liberals don’t show up, or only show up every four years, and ignore the state legislatures who choose electors and establish voting laws.  He pointed out, repeatedly, that the only way to win is to show up.  The only way to reform anything is to show up and vote.  (I’d link the thread, but I’m not finding it in Google, and Twitter history doesn’t go that far back.)

And, yes, there are people who can’t vote.  They don’t have the cash to order their birth certificate from another state so they can get an ID that will be accepted at the polls.  Or their polling place isn’t accessible with their disabilities.  Or neither of their two minimum wage jobs will let them out of a shift to vote, because *they* aren’t scheduling them for the whole day, but when you factor in both shifts and transportation between the two, there’s literally no time in which they could vote that the polls are open.

These are all real problems.  For some people, they’re solvable problems.  There’s a nonprofit who will help them get ID or a coworker who’ll cover a shift or a friend who will drive them to their polling place.  For others, they aren’t.  It’s not my place, as a mostly (if not entirely) able-bodied white chick with my own car and a reasonable employer, to tell someone in one of these situations that they *can* vote if they just try hard enough.  It’s not my place to tell someone with a painful disability how long they *have* to stand in line outside to do their civic duty.

And yet, none of those completely real and completely valid problems changes the fact that if we don’t show up, en masse, we are all fucked.

Yes, there is all manner of cheating.  Gerrymandering and cancellation of early voting and closing of DMVs and polling places.  It’s abhorrent.  But the winning team picks the refs.  There is no higher authority we can realistically appeal to to make our elections fairer. (The UN observes, but has no power to *make* the US do anything.)  Either we win the game, we pick better refs, and we make the rules fairer, or we lose, the other team cheats more blatantly, and our chances of ever winning get slimmer and slimmer.

And, despite the analogy, this isn’t a game.  We lose, people die.  People are already dying because we lost in 2016.

So, if you can vote, you need to vote.  Every general election, every primary, every position.  The county commissioner and state legislator in your area have tons of power to affect your life.  Not only that, but being mayor or state delegate or holding some other local office is how people get the experience to run for Senate or governor or President.  If you want more women and POC in Congress, then you need more women and POC on the school board and in the state assembly.

If you’ve got hours to look up the candidates, great, do that.  If you’ve got ten minutes, spend that ten minutes on Vote411 or Ballotpedia and make the most informed decision you can.  These sites will let you print out a custom ballot to take to the polls.

If you can do more than show up, do that. If you can register people to vote, do that.  If you can drive people to the polls, do that.  If you can donate money to the NAACP or VoteRiders or the Progressive Turnout Project, do that. If you can run for office next year, great, do that.

Those of us who are able to vote need to show up.  Those of us who are able to help others show up need to do that.  This is made more urgent, not less, by gerrymandering, voter suppression, and Election Day not being a national holiday.

I’d also like to stress that not being inspired is not a reason not to vote.  Not liking either candidate is not a reason not to vote.  As a Quaker-flavored progressive Christian, I generally don’t feel it’s my place to impose moral duties on other people.  But I’ll make an exception for voting.  (Again, I want to distinguish between “can’t” and “don’t feel like it.”) It’s a civic duty, not a fun hobby.  And it matters.  It’s literally a matter of life and death for many people.  So, if it’s in any way possible for you, please, for the love of all things good and holy, show up and vote.


Bullies with Chicken Sandwiches

Content note for homophobia, suicide, death penalty, Islamophobia

It’s been a few weeks (roughly eight and a half years in internet time) since Jonathan Merritt posted a long Twitter diatribe about how hypocritical liberals are for not eating at Chick-Fil-A ( threads are here and here). To summarize, liberals who don’t eat at Chick-Fil-A are apparently massive hypocrites unless they not only boycott *all* Muslim businesses (regardless of that business’s actual stance or donations, just based on the sweeping assumption that Muslim = anti-gay) *and* somehow manage to boycott gas because Saudi Arabia is anti-gay.

And, despite everything that’s happened in the mean time (for example, our so-called President reneging on the Iran deal and courting open war because he hasn’t shit on President Obama’s legacy enough yet), I’m still pissed off about it.

At this point, one important  reason I don’t eat at Chick-Fil-A is that the very mention of Chick-Fil-A makes me think about self-righteous conservatives lecturing me about how I should eat there, because if I don’t I’m a vicious bully who’s trying to single-handedly bankrupt the poor, innocent owners who are just trying to be good Christians.

Unfortunately for those conservatives, I reached my quota of bullying by the eighth grade, and I’ve also reached the point where I want to tell them exactly what they can go do with that chicken sandwich. At this point, it’s nice that Chick-Fil-A has stopped or reduced donations to some of the most virulent anti-gay groups, but nothing short of a public apology, a giant donation to the Trevor Project or the Trans Lifeline, or sponsorship of a freaking Pride parade, is going to make me want to eat there again.  There are plenty of other fast-food places whose fries don’t carry the aftertaste of donations to organizations that think I’m a child molester because I’m bi.

Honestly, I think what really pisses me off about Jonathan Merritt’s crappy analogies is both the blatant Islamophobia and the insistence that LGBT people be grateful to Christians for not executing us.  It’s telling that Merritt assumes that a random guy with a falafel cart must be as anti- gay as Focus on the Family, and probably more so.  Never mind that affirming Muslims exist, or that he gets cranky when Christians are painted with a broad brush.  In the same vein, he wants liberals to boycott Saudi Arabia (as impractical as that is) but doesn’t appear to care if they boycott products from Uganda.  I’m sure that has nothing to do with the fact that Uganda is predominantly Christian, or that their anti-gay laws were inspired by American preachers.

Look, you don’t get a medal for not executing gay people, especially when Christians can call for *exactly that* without being thrown out of their churches or losing their livelihoods.  Seriously, Google “pastor calls for executing gays” and you’ll find hordes of these guys.  They might spark a protest or two, but their congregations don’t get up and walk out en masse when they say gay people should be stoned.  Scott Lively literally blames gay people for the Holocaust.  Has he been shunned? No, he’s running for governor of Massachusetts. The Liar Tony Perkins can accuse gay people of molesting and recruiting children all day long, and the Family Research Council continues to rake in millions of dollars in donations.

For that matter, a gay person executed in Saudi Arabia isn’t any deader than a gay teenager who freezes to death on a park bench because his family kicked him out.  Or the one who slits their wrists after hearing a sermon about how people like them are disgusting to God and that natural disasters are punishment for their sins.  Yes, obviously, gay people in the US generally have it much better than those in Saudi Arabia, but let’s not pretend that driving someone to suicide is fine and dandy, as long as you’re not tying the hangman’s knot yourself.

So, no, I’m not grateful that the majority of anti-gay churches in the US (though, let me restate, *not all*) have cleared the ridiculously low bar of not pushing for LGB people to be executed.  No more than you would tell a kid whose lunch money was stolen to go back and thank the bully for not beating them too.

And, speaking of lunch money, I’m sorry that where I spend mine bothers some conservative Christians.  I’m particularly sorry that it bothers them much more than the fact that their theology gets LGBT kids killed.

What about the people who need help? – Guns and Mental Illness Part 4

This post is part of a series.  Part 1 is here. Other links will be added to Part 1 as they’re published.

Another problem with an information pipeline from your therapist to the police is that people already withhold information from their mental health providers because they don’t want to be committed, or because they have other worries.  Even though the conditions under which a therapist is required to break confidentiality are pretty narrow, there are plenty of people who avoid therapy all together to maintain their privacy.

The first time I applied for a background check that included a consent form from my therapist, I was freaking terrified that some bit of information I disclosed would screw up my background check. And I have anxiety disorder—one of most common, least stigmatized, best understood mental health diagnoses out there. Granted, that level of worry is itself a symptom of the anxiety disorder, but expecting people with mental illnesses to act like they don’t have mental illnesses is kind of ridiculous, especially when you’re making it harder for them to get help.

If I were to start experiencing scarier, more significant symptoms, I would definitely be concerned about whether disclosing them to my therapist would impact my job. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I *wouldn’t* get them addressed, but it would give me pause. If we’re going to add *more of that,* we need to be really sure it’s worth it. Especially when, as I mentioned in the last post, mental health is only a tiny sliver of the problem.

This is magnified when you talk about taking people’s guns away, particularly with groups of people who are already clinging to their guns like they live in a warzone. I mean, the NRA is literally taking potshots at teenagers with PTSD because it might threaten their supporters’ ability to sell as many guns as humanly possible. “They’re coming for your guns!” is the best, most successful scare tactic the NRA has, and an awful lot of gun owners are *terrified* of this possibility. It’s one of the reasons mass shootings are such a big moneymaker for gun manufacturers, and therefore for the NRA by virtue of donations. Every time someone murders a bunch of people, people start stocking up on weapons just in case there’s a ban.  Not only do the gun manufacturers then have more money to pour into the NRA’s coffers, but at the same time, the people buying the guns are also donating to the NRA to make sure they get to keep those guns.

So, what happens when the card-carrying NRA member with an arsenal that the local police would envy experiences mental illness symptoms? There are already stigmas about mental illness and about seeking treatment, and they seem to be way more prevalent in conservative circles. So, he’s already got to overcome toxic masculinity telling him that a real man just deals with his problems. Maybe he’s got to overcome his pastor telling him that if you have a mental illness you’re not praying enough or your relationship with God isn’t right. If we add, oh, and you might lose the gun collection that makes you feel safe and that you’ve got a huge portion of your identity as an American and as a man tied up in, he’s even less likely to seek treatment.

That’s not to say that every NRA member views their guns as a core part of themselves or as an extension of their masculinity if they’re male.  But certainly many do.  Gun advertising reinforces this all the time.

And, yeah, I value the lives of the Parkland, and Great Mills, and Sandy Hook kids much more than I value anybody else’s gun collection.  But I also value the life of the guy who’s deeply depressed but doesn’t want to seek therapy because he fears they’ll take away his guns.

What problem are we solving? – Guns and Mental Illness Part 3

This post is part of a series.  Part 1 is here. Other links will be added to Part 1 as they’re published.

Before we go too far down the road of targeting mental health as a means of solving gun violence, perhaps we should investigate whether it’s actually the root cause.  From everything I can tell, it’s not.  It’s a tautology to say that *something* has gone wrong in the head of someone who commits mass murder, but that doesn’t mean they have a mental illness.  It’s equally possible for them to simply be a selfish, or angry, or violent person who is perfectly sane.

While there are mental health issues that can mean a person should not have access to a gun, that doesn’t mean that everyone with a mental illness is a danger. In fact, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violence than to perpetrate it, and when they do, it’s mostly suicide. (I’m all for preventing suicide, but we have to acknowledge that the dangers are different.)

Mass shooters are pretty much uniformly white males, the demographic group with the best access to mental health services. The ones with the worst, black women, aren’t out there shooting up schools and concerts.

Following along with that, mental illness exists in Japan, Australia, Great Britain, and all these other countries who don’t have mass shootings.

We need better mental health care, and we should take steps to make sure that people who are actively homicidal or suicidal can’t access guns. *But* scapegoating mentally ill people not only harms an already marginalized group, but it also ignores large parts of the problem.

So, once we’ve kept guns out of the hands of mentally ill people, many of whom have never and would never hurt a fly, what are we doing about the next mass shooting by an angry white guy? I mean, you could make a compelling argument that toxic masculinity and white entitlement are mentally unhealthy, but those sicknesses exist at the cultural level rather than the individual level. Are we addressing any of that? Are we addressing the fact that domestic violence is a much better predictor of someone becoming a mass shooter than a mental health diagnosis is? Or are we scapegoating people with mental illnesses and calling it a day?

And let’s pay attention to the fact that we are scapegoating people with mental illnesses.  That stigma already exists.  People already face rejection, fear, and stereotypes when anyone finds out that they’ve got a mental health diagnosis.  When we paint mentally ill people as a shooting spree ready to happen, we only add to that.  And that stereotype isn’t even true.

The police are part of the problem – Guns and Mental Health Part 2

This post is part of a series.  Part 1 is here.

In my previous post, I talked about the privacy concerns raised by the proposal to modify HIPAA to allow therapists to either submit mental health information to the background check database or provide it directly to law enforcement.

My next big concern is with providing this information to law enforcement, and what the police will do with this information. The police already have a tendency to shoot people who they view as behaving erratically or who they see as a threat. Telling them in advance that someone they’re going to interact with has a mental illness can prejudice them toward a belief, maybe unfounded, that the person is dangerous. And, like everything else, those prejudices get amplified when dealing with any minorities, particularly black people. So, my big question is, what information from someone’s private mental health records do you want the police to have? When police have this information, how do you ensure that they’ll behave reasonably and proportionally? How do you ensure that putting Bob’s depression or bipolar diagnosis in the hands of law enforcement doesn’t get him shot?

As a related question, if you’re changing HIPAA, are police officers now bound by HIPAA (with the related training that entails)? Or, once they know that John Q. Smith of 471 Maple Drive in Anytown, NY is diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder, do they get to disseminate this information? And, again, what if it’s wrong? If it was actually John H. Smith who had those diagnoses, what recourse does John Q. Smith have about the false information that’s out there? Is he entitled to know the police are keeping those records? What safeguards are they using?

Before we mess with HIPAA, I have some questions (Guns and Mental Health – Part 1)

This is a multipart post.  Subsequent posts will go up on a schedule. (Hey, I wrote four posts today, I’m getting at least a week’s worth of mileage out of them.) They’ll also link back to the previous posts.

Part 1:  Before we mess with HIPAA, I have some questions

I have seen a lot of people arguing that HIPAA laws need to be changed so that if your therapist decides you’re dangerous, they can tell law enforcement. This was also one of the policy points from March for Our Lives yesterday.  (To be clear, I give the Parkland kids *so much credit* for taking the horrible thing that happened to them and working to make sure it doesn’t happen to the next group of kids.  This is criticism and questions of specific policy proposals, not of their motives or them as people.  We also shouldn’t expect teenagers to put out perfect policy proposals, because of course they lack the experience that adults bring to these issues.)

I have questions. And concerns. This will be long, so I’m breaking it into multiple posts.

First of all, therapists are already *required* to report if they think you’re going to harm yourself or others. This is covered under existing laws.

So what, specifically do you want to change? You want a lower standard for mandatory reporting?  Okay, what specifically needs to be reported and to whom? The therapist reports directly to the background database? Okay, who’s in charge of reviewing the therapist’s assessment? That is, what prevents a therapist who thinks *nobody* should have guns from reporting on people who aren’t actually a danger? What prevents a therapist from using this process selectively, whether deliberately or because of subconscious biases? Is the patient entitled to know that this information has been submitted? If it’s incorrect, what rights do they have to appeal it? What data on a patient’s diagnosis stays in that database, and how is it protected? (If you are found guilty of a crime, that’s a matter of public record. Your health information is not, and it requires a whole different level of security than the existing background check database currently does.)

What do you do in case of a breach? If someone steals the list and plasters it all over the web, who’s responsible, and what kind of damages are those patients entitled to? For that matter, who decides what mental illnesses get you on this list? Is there a list of illnesses? Specific symptoms? Is there a specific screening tool, or is it completely up to the therapist’s discretion? What are the diagnostic criteria? Who’s in charge of updating them as knowledge and understanding of mental illness changes?

Basically, can you ensure that whatever you’re proposing is an accurate reflection of someone’s likelihood of becoming violent, doesn’t inappropriately expose their private medical information, and doesn’t inappropriately take away their right to own a gun.