Archive for October, 2009

h1

Just who is going to opt out of Opt Out?

October 29, 2009

us-life-expectancy

I like maps like these, because they demonstrate the great diversity to be found within the United States of America, and how important regionalism is in the country. I posted it along with some commentary a couple weeks back on my other blog, but it originally comes from FlowingData.com. (Should you not like pictures, you can see the figures in table form over at Business Week.) The disparity should not be too surprising; the United States has a federal system of government, and while the Founding Fathers may not have intended for Hawaiians to live an average of eight years longer than residents of the District of Columbia, they set up the country on the understanding that the states were not uniform and conditions therein were not interchangeable.

The disparities among the states that cause the differences in life expectancy are not too hard to see; people tend to live longer in states that are wealthier and live more healthful lifestyles. States with modern professional economies tend to do well, as do states that lean Democrat, though that correlation may not necessarily be a cause.

Something that obviously does correlate with and cause longer life expectancy – though even it is not everything – is health care. It should be no surprise that the long-living Hawaiians have one of the best health care systems in the country, and similarly long-lived states like Iowa, Vermont, Minnesota, Maine, and New Hampshire have comparatively cheaper, more readily available, or better quality health care systems. It’s not rocket science: if it’s easier for you to see a doctor, you’ll probably live longer. Similarly, even though other factors like income play a significant role, states with poor health care, for instance Southern states such as Louisiana and Mississippi, have below average life expectancy rates.

The big talk around health care reform in the States this past week or so has been Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s endorsement of a public option, with an opt-out provision. This basically means that the government would set up a health care system, but if individual states decided they did not want to make use of that option, their citizens could not be a part of it, and the government would not offer insurance in that state. Politico describes it as “a very American idea,” saying,”[o]ur founders established the notion of federalism to allow states that felt strongly about public policy to operate under different laws and procedures.” As Politico goes on to explain, opting out isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. It isn’t clear how states would decide to opt out – should the legislature decide? The governor? The people, by referendum? If a state chose to opt out, would the sick migrate to a state that did offer public insurance? And does the government really want to create a precedent of allowing states to pick and choose which federal laws apply to them?

These are all questions that will be answered during the long process of the Senate writing, debating and approving the legislation. But one likely pitfall of the opt out provision may not be realised until it’s actually in place and states actually are opting out.

Back when Congress passed a stimulus package aimed at injecting funds back into the American economy, Republican Governors like Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal and South Carolina’s Mark Sanford made a show of rejecting the Federal hand outs – whether for reasons of ideology, grandstanding, or both. Some, like Mississippi’s Governor Haley Barbour were concerned they’d be obliged to accept welfare conditions of which they did not approve, while Jindal and Sanford were, at the time, possible 2012 Presidential nominees who had an incentive to please the Republican base.

The opt-out provision could become a similar political football, and if Governors like Jindal and Barbour are once again the ones kicking it around, citizens of the states who could most benefit from health care reform will suffer. Remember, states like Jindal’s Louisiana and Barbour’s Mississippi are poor states with little health care coverage that would definitely benefit from a government program.

When the stimulus package passed, a South Carolina Representative, Jim Clyburn, inserted a provision into the bill to allow state legislatures to override any Governor who rejected federal funds. (Disclosure: I will be working as an unpaid intern in Clyburn’s office for a period next year.) To ensure health care remains about insuring more people, it might be a smart idea for an opt-out public option to include a similar safeguard.

Elsewhere, if you liked my post about Maine’s place in America’s future, you might like to take a look at Politico’s profile of its senators and its political culture. It gives an excellent overview of the reasons why this odd little state is at the centre of so many of the country’s big battles.

h1

Exile on Maine Street: Middle America takes a trip to the Pine Tree State

October 26, 2009

In the minds of most people, Middle America is that massive stretch of flyover country between the coasts; a land of baseball games and picket fences, hard working, religiously-devout small-town folk, and, in recent times, closing down factories and widespread unemployment. It’s made up of states like Ohio, where in the past two Presidential elections, the media have descended upon its towns and cities to watch average American swing voters decide the fate of the nation.

For the next couple of weeks, though, Middle America is a land less about cornfields and more about lobster pots and cold Canadian winds. The central battleground in American politics has shifted to the north east corner of the country. For the time being, replace “Will it play in Peoria?” with “Does it matter in Maine?”

The first story out of Maine is an old American tale that could, this time, have a new ending. On November 3rd, citizens of the Pine Tree State will vote on a referendum, Question 1, that seeks to overturn a law extending marriage rights to same-sex couples. In May of this year, the Maine state legislature passed the bill permitting gay marriages, and the state’s Democratic governor John Baldacci signed it into law, making Maine the first state to permit same-sex marriage through legislative action and to have it subsequently endorsed by the executive. (The legislature of nearby Vermont also passed a marriage bill, but it had to use a supermajority to override the governor’s veto.)

It’s one more step in the fumbling but consistent way America is steadily expanding the definition of marriage to include gay couples. Despite the chatter generated by the wave of states that voted to ingrain the one-man-one-woman definition in their constitutions, less noticed has been the growing acceptance of same sex marriage across America. Fifteen states have decided to allow either gay marriage or civil unions, and the debate has shifted to such an extent that where Bill Clinton’s compromise on allowing gays in the military, the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, was considered controversial in the 1990s, the main critique now comes from critics on the left saying Obama isn’t dismantling it fast enough.

Maine’s Question 1 asks voters to overturn the legislature’s decision to permit gay marriage, and the state’s Portland Press Herald compares the fight to that over California’s Proposition 8, which last year narrowly overturned a court decision permitting gay marriage in that state. It’s not a certainty that Mainers will vote the same way Californians did, however. The Maine law derived from the people’s representatives, and not a court, which has bolstered its credibility, and FiveThirtyEight reports that pro-gay marriage supporters in Maine have amassed almost three times the funds gay marriage opponents have managed to raise. FiveThirtyEight’s analysis cautiously predicts that the attempted ban will fail, but the polling is contradictory and ambiguous.

When Main Street, Maine, isn’t focused on gay marriage, it’s debating an issue looming even larger in the American consciousness: health care reform. And once again, this little patch of New England is at the centre of everything – or its Senator is, anyway. Whether the Obama administration is courting Olympia Snowe’s vote because it wants a veneer of bipartisanship or because she is the ideological key to overcoming a filibuster attempt in the Senate, this moderate Mainer is one of the few Republicans who Democrats have any hope of getting onside, and they are giving her a disproportionate amount of attention as a result. Snowe is single-handedly keeping alive her preference for the bill to include a trigger mechanism holding off a government-run insurance option, and her vote in favour of the Senate Finance Committee’s proposed legislation was seen as a major step in achieving reform. And if Maine is Middle America for this week, a recent poll showing its residents support a public option being included in the health care bill is a good sign for Obama and his left wing base.

Maine is a relatively liberal, rural and largely unconsidered outpost up near the Canadian border, and before long its focus will return to the price of heating oil and local lobster sales. But right now, a bunch of Mainiacs – as they’re occasionally referred to – have become a microcosm of America’s political debate.

h1

All Mad Men are created equal: Glenn Beck’s common sense

October 22, 2009

I’ll say this for cable news programs: they really know how to up the ante. Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart pricked the absurdity of the relentless and frequently meaningless 24 hour news cycle, but he couldn’t match Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly. Then Stewart launched protégé Stephen Colbert and his wicked parody of the rabble-rousing, self-satisfied conservative anchorman, and the game seemed over. How could you top a man who accused reality of having a well-known liberal bias?

Why, with Glenn Beck, of course! A year ago, Beck was a minor league CNN personality, but the combination of the Obama presidency, a move to Fox, and a right wing desperate for direction has led to commentators saying – and not too implausibly – that he “might just be helping restore the equilibrium between the elite and populist sides of conservatism.” If a media personality is – as the Obama administration has put it – the leader of the Republican Party, it’s Beck, not Rush Limbaugh.

If you want to know why Beck is so popular, take a look at one of his programs last week. Beck is warm and intimate and confessional; he actually weeps during this segment, something not unusual for him. Like a conservative Jon Stewart, he portrays himself as a down-to-earth everyman who sees the madness that is modern politics and can only respond by blurting out his version of straight-forward common sense. It’s great television whether you’re on the left, the right, or even if you have no real interest in politics.

Glenn Beck’s common sense (coincidentally, that’s also the name of one of his books) in this clip is something to behold indeed. In fact, even if he serves only a partisan portion of America, his misty-eyed truth-telling springs from something deeper and more universal in the country’s character.

Beck looks us deep in the eyes and lowers his voice: “I think if a politician came to us and said, ‘Do you remember that simpler time in America…?’ And I know, it wasn’t a perfect time. America has always had her problems, big and small. But do you remember how that felt? Do you remember what life was like?” Then Beck plays a couple of dusty, old, feel-good commercials to support his point. One is the famed Coke spot featuring a boy offering American footballer “Mean Joe” Greene his soda; the other is a Kodak ad soundtracked by, of all people, Paul Anka.

They’re the kind of things that might have been dreamed up by the imaginative might of Don Draper, and indeed, there is a bit of “Mad Men” in Beck’s common sense. Not the cutting social commentary of “Mad Men” the TV series, which has no qualms about highlighting the deeply ingrained power lines of early ’60s society – whites over blacks, men over women – but the stylish nostalgia of “Mad Men” the cultural phenomenon. If you get invited to a Mad Men party, you’re not going to expect sexual harassment and pregnant women smoking; you’re going to find stylish clothes, classy cocktails, and hot retro tunes. “Mad Men” in the public consciousness has come to represent exactly the kind of rose-coloured fantasy world the television series was intent on dismantling.

“America has always had her problems,” Beck says, sweeping away Jim Crow and McCarthyism with one nebulous platitude. Fittingly for a man Time Magazine dubbed a “Mad Man,” his vision of America is the same as that of “Mad Men” the cultural phenomenon; a cozy realm of certainty and surety unmuddied by social reality.

This is how Beck puts it::

America has never been a perfect place, but we used to be united. We used to be united on some basic things. If a politician told you right now that he could make that happen again – you could go back to those simpler times when people were together – you’d do it in a heartbeat.

He follows that up with a fantastic folksy tale analogising America to a naive teenager who gets mixed up with a bad crowd, and has to be punished for it – a story that fits perfectly into his nostalgic reminiscence. He presents it as a conservative image of America, but it’s more than that. It’s an apolitical idea that runs deep within American culture.

Nostalgia is by no means unique to the United States, but the country has its own take on the emotion. Throughout its history, Americans have feared their nation is on the brink of losing its greatness, that, in the words of Beck, “the country is on the wrong track … [Americans] know that SOMETHING JUST DOESN’T FEEL RIGHT but they don’t know how to describe it or, more importantly, how to stop it.” It’s a curious melancholia in the American spirit that counterbalances its optimism and swagger: this is a nation convinced that it had perfected itself at some glittering moment in the past, and each day it falls farther and farther away from that zenith. It’s the same paradox at the heart of that famous pledge, in the preamble to its constitution, to “form a more perfect union” – how can anything be “more perfect? It’s the paradox between the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal,” and the original sin of slavery that undermined this affirmation from the moment of the country’s conception.

America is known as a big, ambitious, and unrelentingly optimistic nation that valorises winners and exults in success. But it has a flip side too: the America of Americana: small towns and tight knit communities with a stoic admiration for hard work and traditional values. It’s the America of picket fences and Fathers Knowing Best that has turned “Mad Men” from a smart drama into a cultural phenomenon. This is the America Glenn Beck likes to talk about. It’s the mythical America so many of its citizens – on the left and the right – believe the country can return to, even if it was never really there. And even if Glenn Beck is a mad man, he is one in touch with a highly resonant brand of common sense.

h1

Welcome to the future: Americans gear up to get super-freaky on climate change

October 20, 2009

Of late, Americans visiting Australia might feel like they’ve stepped into the near future, at least politically. Not only did Kevin Rudd’s 2007 election seem like a dress rehearsal of sorts for Barack Obama’s extravaganza in the following year, we can now be assured the current debate gripping our government will soon hit the United States Congress. Yes, forget health care; soon enough the number one issue in the States will be climate change, and what to do about it.

Of course, the U.S. is a different nation to Australia, and its climate change debate will not look the same as ours. The USSC’s CEO Geoff Garrett, for instance, discussed some of the differences in the policy in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald:

First, [Democrat Senator John Kerry and Republican Senator Lindsay Graham] advocate carbon tariffs, imposing financial penalties on products from countries that do not accept binding cuts to their emissions – to make them less competitive against local products  …

Second, Kerry and Graham emphasised that “nuclear power needs to be a core component of electricity generation if we are to meet our emission reduction targets”.

Finally, they said while the US needed to go to Copenhagen with a broad framework to help forge a global consensus, completed American legislation was neither likely nor essential. American bargaining power might in fact be increased by not committing domestically in advance.

As well as pursuing different policies, the U.S. has a different political environment to Australia, and that will affect any bid to pass a bill aimed at curbing American emissions. For a start, the Constitutional requirement that the U.S. Senate ratify any treaties the President negotiates makes any negotiations with other countries a far more precarious prospect, and it is understandable that Kerry and Graham would prefer to send Barack Obama to Copenhagen with a broad framework rather than an inviolable set of rules. America has a lot of clout, but its power is not absolute, and Obama is most likely to get results if he can show world leaders that any agreement they negotiate with him is consistent with the U.S. Senate’s desires – and will therefore be ratified by the United States.

And when the actual debate gets going, any coalition in support of a bill will have to be bipartisan, and will be contested by members of both parties. Here in Australia, we have the unusual situation whereby the majority of our Senate would like to pass a bill controlling emissions — Labor is united on the issue, and some Liberal moderates, including the party’s leader, Malcolm Turnbull, are convinced climate change is real, man made and must be stopped — but the Opposition is compelled to oppose the legislation to mollify its conservative wing and maintain party unity. In the States, however, the ruling Democrats will not act as one, as Labor has, and many Democrats, especially those representing industry-heavy Midwestern states, will have no interest whatsoever in curbing emissions. As with health care reform, the Democrats must convince some Republicans to join them in support of any legislation, but unlike health care, they’ll need more than one or two. The Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein put it like this last week: “This coalition will have to be more like the coalition that passed the Civil Rights Act, when Northern Republicans provided the majority with the votes that the Southern Democrats attempted to withhold.”

And over the past few days, we’ve had a taste of the likely character of the debate over U.S. efforts to reduce emissions. The American blogosphere has recently erupted in a storm of chatter about the new book from journalist Stephen J. Dubner and University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt. Dubner and Levitt write the Freakonomics blog at the New York Times and their new book,Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance goes on sale today. Freakonomics aims to use economics to “expose the hidden side to everything” – their first book had a chapter explaining why the average drug dealer was more like a McDonalds employee than a Scarface-esque high roller for instance – and the new book contains a chapter on climate change.

Klein, the Post blogger, describes Freakonomics as “prefer[ring] an interesting story to an accurate one,” and Dubner and Levitt indeed encounter problems when they eschew truth for intrigue in their take on climate change. They say that the real way to combat rising temperatures is not to reduce pollution, as is currently the strategy favoured around the globe, but to instead cool the earth down by pumping sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere. Their view has been criticised on a scientificeconomic, and journalistic basis (Dubner and Levitt allegedly misrepresented an expert’s views, and, more comically, failed to check what colour are solar panels). Paul Krugman at the Times scolds them on all three counts. Dubner defends the ethics of the book vehemently, though he has had little to say thus far about the purported errors in science and economics.

So what, can we take from this? Malcolm Turnbull may be heartened to see Dubner and Levitt use Australia as an example of a country that would gain no benefit from acting to reduce emissions before other nations do, and all Australians may nod ruefully at the book’s acknowledgement Americans would be unlikely to adopt environmentally-friendly kangaroo meat in lieu of methane-emitting cattle, but the real lesson from this is just how virulent the debate over emissions trading legislation will be in the U.S.

Though Dubner and Levitt write far too sceptically about man-made global warming for a pair that says their book supports fighting climate change, they are hardly hardcore deniers of the Stephen Fielding or Wilson Tuckey mould. Instead, for the sake of an attention-grabbing book chapter, they’ve engaged in some sloppy scholarship. But if mere sloppiness could result in this level of misinformation and prompt this much furore, imagine what it will be like once the debate expands to folks actually opposed to doing anything at all. The tumultuous days of Tea Parties and Town Hall Meetings aren’t over yet.

h1

In which America’s billionaire tyrant ruins journalism with his Australianity.

October 20, 2009

Or not.

In the midst of a perfectly reasonable article, Jacob Weisberg drops this inflammatory, obnoxious and ignorant bomb:

What’s most distinctive about the American press is not its freedom but its tradition of independence—that it serves the public interest rather than those of parties, persuasions, or pressure groups. Media independence is a 20th-century innovation that has never fully taken root in Europe or many other countries that do have free press. The Australian-British-continental model of politicized media that Murdoch has implemented at Fox is un-American, so much so that he has little choice but go on denying what he’s doing as he does it.

I know Americans would like to blame some other land for the ills caused by American (not Australian) citizen Rupert Murdoch, but this exercise in contrasting media landscapes is glib and fails to take proper account of cultural nuance.

As Weisberg elliptically acknowledges in the same article (he refers to the “”tea parties” that Fox covered the way the Hearst press covered the Spanish-American war” — an allusion to the politically-influential press barons of the 19th century American media) bias in the American media is hardly new; it was indeed a 20th Century innovation that made American news more oriented toward the public interest.

While I can’t, and have no interest in, speaking for the British press, Australian newspapers have a strong independent and public service-inclined streak that shouldn’t be dismissed in the scurrilous way Weisberg does here. While we have undoubtedly had stronger and more enduring tabloids — of the American Hearst/Pulitzer mould — here than in the States (major cities like Adelaide and Brisbane do not have local broadsheet papers), these publications are more concerned with serving the interests of a particular working class social class than pushing a political agenda, as Fox News does. And though sadly defunct news magazines like The Bulletin were not without a political agenda — that publication once had the slogan “Australia for the White Man” emblazoned on its masthead — these had long ago moved into modernity.

Papers like Fairfax Corporation’s Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and The Canberra Times remain respectably independent, and Murdoch’s own national broadsheet, The Australian, is filled with the kind of respectable reporting you would never find on Fox. (Its opinion pages lean heavily rightward, however, but then again, so too do American opinion pages like the Wall Street Journal — even before it was owned by Murdoch’s News Ltd.)

There is much to admire about American journalism, and a 20th Century commitment to independence is one of those things. Its continuing resistance to tabloid sensationalism is another. But the Fox News model of journalistic political advocacy cannot be sheeted home to Rupert Murdoch’s Australian birthplace; it was created in America, for Americans, by an American — Murdoch renounced his Australian citizenship in 1985, when he became an American — and if anything, it has distinct echoes of an earlier brand of American journalism, the kind William Randolph Hearst’s papers were deploying in the Spanish-American War.

Cross-posted at my Tumblr.

h1

In which Republicans are the kings of wishful thinking

October 12, 2009

I sure hope, for the sake of the G.O.P., that the New York Times is engaging in liberal mischievousness today, with its report that Republicans are so confident of gains big enough in the 2010 midterm elections that they may even take back the House:

“I have no doubt that we will,” said Representative Tom Price, the Georgia Republican who leads the conservative Republican Study Committee. “TheAmerican people want checks and balances, and the way to do that is to put Republicans back in charge.”

Publicly and privately, Republicans have been upbeat about the midterm outlook, saying voter unrest demonstrated at meetings this summer coupled with strong candidate recruitment have them highly optimistic about capturing 40 or more Democratic seats and resuming command of the House.

I would tell you all the many, compelling reasons this is utter fantasy –whether you agree that the 2008 election marked a once-in-a-generation political realignment leftward or not — except the Times has been good enough to do it itself:

At the moment, Democrats have not experienced a wave of retirements, sparing them from having to protect numerous open seats in competitive House districts — typically the best opportunity for a takeover by the opposition.

While Democratic fund-raising is down, the House committee has still outraised its Republican counterpart. Republican standing remains low in public opinion polls, and the party continues to struggle to resolve the gulf between its conservative wing, which is ascendant, and the remaining moderates.

Further, it is impossible to predict what the public mood will be a year from now or what the response will be if Democrats are able to pass a health care overhaul or the economy improves and unemployment decreases.

Things have got a bit better for the right since the nadir of the 2008 Presidential election. They’ve found, in Obama’s economic stimulus and health care reforms, a rallying point that has boosted their morale, and they’ve received a fair amount of media coverage over both. The bad news for them is that they’ve appeared to confuse the coverage of the Republican base with genuine voter sentiment.

It’s true that the American public has its doubts about health care reform. They’re nervous. But they also remain behind the goals of the reform — expanding coverage and reducing costs — and remain happy to increase taxes to see this done. Democrats are unpopular in Congress, but Republicans are even more unpopular, and voter identification continues to side with the Democrats. This suggests the midterms are unlikely to swing toward a Republican party offering itself up as a mere alternative to an unpopular government. That worked in 2006, when the governing party really was on the nose. Today, voters are frustrated with the government, but they’re still listening. The Republicans have wandered into a hall of mirrors and, staring at their own reflection, are convinced they’re in the midst of a revolution.

It is true that governments most often fail not when they offer bad solutions to their constituents concerns, but when they don’t recognize those concerns as problems at all. This is what happened in Australia in 1996 and 2007, and in the United States in 2008 and 1968. The Democrats should pay heed to American voters’ worries about high deficits and expanding government, lest someone else come along and pay heed for them. But right now the Republicans are offering very little in the way of solutions, and it is difficult to see them turning the current situation to their advantage.

Steven F. Hayward in the Washington Post expands on some of the background to this problem:

During the glory days of the conservative movement, from its ascent in the 1960s and ’70s to its success in Ronald Reagan’s era, there was a balance between the intellectuals, such as Buckley and Milton Friedman, and the activists, such as Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich, the leader of the New Right. The conservative political movement, for all its infighting, has always drawn deeply from the conservative intellectual movement, and this mix of populism and elitism troubled neither side.

Today, however, the conservative movement has been thrown off balance, with the populists dominating and the intellectuals retreating and struggling to come up with new ideas. The leading conservative figures of our time are now drawn from mass media, from talk radio and cable news. We’ve traded in Buckley for Beck, Kristol for Coulter, and conservatism has been reduced to sound bites.

President Obama has done conservatives a great favor, delivering CPR to the movement with his program of government gigantism, but this resuscitation should not be confused with a return to political or intellectual health. The brain waves of the American right continue to be erratic, when they are not flat-lining.

Basically, the right has a lot in the way of gas-bags willing to complain, but no one coming up with new ideas to turn those complaints into policies, and subsequently, votes. Right now, voters concerns are still centered on solidly Democratic issues: health, employment, the environment even. Republicans can’t afford to get cocky.

Yet right now in the cycle is the time for parties to get cocky. They do need to get the base excited and donating time and money. Closer to the election will come the time for management of expectations, and this should prove very interesting indeed. The Democrats likely will lose seats in the House, since they’re picked up numbers the past couple elections and many of these are in districts that naturally lean Republican. Not to mention that it’s tough being the party of any President half way through a cycle.

But this will not be 1994. Republicans have no Contract with America, and they’re not about to come up with one. The battle for the Republicans will be to make the gains they do make look substantive enough to seem like a victory; for the Democrats it will be to make their losses look mild and inevitable rather than a rebuke of their policies. The Democrats understand this game. If the Republicans keep talking about taking back the House, they will find the victories they do gain will look insufficient after their big talk.

h1

In which Texas stands athwart history and yells, “Huh? What?”

October 5, 2009

You should be feeling pity for Texas conservatives right now. See, conservatism is meant to be easy; that’s one of its greatest appeals. It rejects the mushy moral relativism of liberalism for simple, straightforward dicta. Like: if it’s Middle Eastern, invade it; if it’s a tax, cut it; if it’s a gay marriage, oppose it.

Except right wing Texans down[1] in the Lone Star State have found themselves in the uncomfortable position of supporting gay marriage. Or, one specific gay marriage anyway. Reports the New York Times:

HOUSTON — A judge in Texas paved the way for a court battle over the state’s ban on same-sex marriage when she ruled this week that two men married in another state can get divorced in Dallas.

The state attorney general said Friday that he would appeal the decision, even as gay rights advocates applauded the judge, Tena Callahan of Family District Court, for declaring that the state’s four-year-old ban on same-sex marriages and civil unions violated the right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment.

Turns out these two dudes Texas’s Family District Court is calling H.B. and J.B.[2]  got gay-married back in Massachusetts (where folks can do such things), moved to Texas, then realized they weren’t living gay-happily in gay-harmony, and wanted to get gay-divorced. Gaily.

Texas law does not permit gay marriages — indeed, it’s only permitted sodomy since the United States Supreme Court said it had to, six years ago — so it seemed J.B. and H.B.’s decision to divorce would have been recognized as an admirable effort to conform with the laws of the great state they now called home. The problem was, though, that since Texas refuses to admit the couple was ever married, it couldn’t exactly allow them to get divorced. Which meant they had to stay married. Except, according to Texas, they weren’t married. Except in Massachusetts. But they couldn’t get divorced in Massachusetts, where they were married, because now they lived in Texas.

You’d think, then, that it would have been a relief to everyone involved, gay, straight or Texan, when a judge stepped in and said that the two men were perfectly entitled to a divorce, just like every other resident of Texas. Indeed, she based her decision on the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution which says governments can’t deny citizens equal protection under the law. That is, if the government says two people who happen to be a man and a woman can get divorced, then two people who happen to be a man and a man are entitled to the same option.

The judge, Tena Callahan[3], was doing something pretty radical and pretty straightforward here. She looked at a constitution that said, basically, “folks need to be treated the same,” saw a situation where J.B. and H.B. were not being treated the same as other folks (i.e. were not permitted to get a divorce) and told the government in breach of that that this was not on.

Of course, this has implications for more than gay divorces. If Texas law must allow gay couples married in Massachusetts to be divorced, it must recognize that they were married in the first place. And since Texas must do so because, according to the U.S. constitution, it is discriminatory not to, then it probably is discriminatory for Texas not to permit gay marriages within its own borders. And since this is the American Constitution being discussed, rather than the Texan one, the ruling should apply to the entirety of the United States. Judge Callahan’s decision might as well declare gay marriage legal throughout the fifty states.

Texas Governor Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott, both Republicans, vigorously oppose Callahan’s decision. If Texas doesn’t reverse this decision, there’s a chance the case could go all the way to the United States Supreme Court, a prospect I’m sure the minimalist-inclined Roberts Court is dreading.

I guess we should all be pleased even Texan conservatives have finally expanded their defense of the sanctity of marriage to include gays, even if they don’t actually recognize the marriages of which they’re defending the sanctity. But it’s useful to hear from one of the parties involved, J.B., who Fort Worth’s Star Telegram quotes as saying in a statement from his attorney:

“Some have called for this to be a day of victory or a cause for celebration … It is actually a day of great personal sadness as a chapter to my life ends.”

Divorces aren’t fun occasions for anyone, and I’m sure they’re even worse when your state’s Governor is arguing about whether you can even have one. This is one gay marriage of which no one should be in favor.


[1] Well, since we’re in Australia, technically up.

[2] Guys, it’s not me.

[3] Us Australians may be a little discombobulated to find she’s campaigning for re-election next year.