And Now For Something Cool…

As the hysteria over the belief that pot was a “gateway” drug finally began to abate, and states slowly moved to legalize its medical and recreational uses, discussions about the benefits of marijuana have tended to focus on CBD and similar semi-medicinal uses. But the real benefit of a more sane approach to the plant is in the rediscovery of the multiple uses of hemp.

As Wikipedia reports, industrial hemp– a botanical class of Cannabis sativa cultivars grown specifically for industrial and consumable use– can be used to make a wide range of products. Along with bamboo, hemp is among the fastest growing plants on Earth. It was also one of the first plants to be spun into usable fiber 50,000 years ago. It can be refined into a variety of commercial items, including paper, rope, textiles, clothing, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, food, and animal feed.

Pretty impressive!

It always seemed insane to me that disapproval of the more “recreational” use of marijuana plants had effectively prohibited the growth of hemp for these multiple benign purposes. (As I understand it–and I probably don’t– plants grown for industrial purposes lack the “recreational” element, but because the varieties look so much alike in the field, neither could be grown in jurisdictions that outlawed pot. In other words, most jurisdictions.)

Now it appears that hemp is being used in yet another promising way: as a climate-friendly building material. As the Guardian reports,

Cannabis sativa, the plant of the thousand and one molecules, has a long and expansive reputation – as a folk medicine, a source of textile fibre for clothes, for making rope or plugging holes in ships.

But now cannabis – or specifically its non-psychoactive variant, hemp – is being touted for something greater still: building blocks for housing that may avoid some of the environmental, logistic and economic downsides of concrete.

The cement industry is responsible for about 8% of planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions, alongside problems created by unyielding surfaces and low insulation, or R-value, properties. The search for large-scale alternatives has so far yielded few results, but on a small scale there are intriguing possibilities, including the use of hemp mixed with lime to create low-carbon, more climate healthy building materials.

“There’s an enormous growth potential in the US for hemp fibre used for building and insulation,” said Kaja Kühl, an urban designer and the founder of youarethecity, a design and building practice based in Brooklyn, New York. “Hemp was only legalised in 2018, but now industrial hemp is following the first wave of CBD and cannabis.”

The Guardian reports that there is a “fledgling network of advocates, designers and fabricators” who are working to enlarge the use of bio-based building materials, which they see as a way to dramatically reduce the upfront carbon footprint of materials that can account for some 80% of a building’s carbon lifecycle.

But more recently its ability to capture more than twice its own weight in carbon – twice as fast as traditional forestry – has come into focus. By some estimates, hemp can capture up to 15 tonnes of CO2 per hectare, through photosynthesis. Hemp cultivation taking up only 25% of the world’s agricultural land used for dairy and livestock would close the UN emissions gap of 23 gigatons of CO2 annually.

“Choosing materials that sequester a lot of carbon before they become construction materials can be very beneficial in this quest to get to carbon-neutral by 2050,” Kühl said, pointing out that the hemp that is used is the hurd, from the inner stem, and not the bark that is used for paper or rope.

This is so cool!

It is so easy to become discouraged about the current state of the world we inhabit. Listening to the daily reports of idiocy emanating from our various legislative chambers, cringing from the reports of devastation in Ukraine and the Middle East, scanning the reports of all-too-frequent episodes of mass gun violence…The bad news tends to overwhelm and drown out the good.

We need to remember–as I report here too infrequently–there are a lot of good people in the world doing a lot of very good things. They are making cool discoveries, inventing marvelous things and figuring out new ways to help those who need that help.

Those of us who prefer helping the good guys to feeding the resentments and insecurities of those who are barriers to progress have a job that is both difficult and disarmingly simple: we need to elect lawmakers who want to make it easier–not harder– for the good guys to move humanity to a better place.

At the very least, we need to vote out the MAGAs who want to take us back to a past that never was.


Picking On A Democrat

Well, at least I think he’s a Democrat. After all, he was Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court.

I’m talking, of course, about Merrick Garland, who has finally convinced me that what I originally took to be prudence and respect for the necessary independence of the Department of Justice is really wishy-washy timidity bordering on incompetence. His performance as Attorney General reminds me of a long-ago insight/admission; when I was Indianapolis’ Corporation Counsel, a local political wheeler-dealer asked me if I would be interested in running for a judgeship. I told him that my personality tended more toward advocacy (I know–regular readers will be shocked!) and that I lacked the judicial temperament needed for a judgeship.

Perhaps that’s Garland’s problem, in reverse. Had McConnell not breached his duty and had Garland been seated on the Court, perhaps he would have performed well in that more measured role. But he’s been a huge mistake as Attorney General. The insight that evidently escapes him is that you don’t have to be impermissibly partisan to exercise proper control over the Department of Justice.

As Charles Pierce recently wrote in Esquire, Garland needs to be thanked for his service and shown the door.

I have come to the sad conclusion that, like Brian Wilson, Attorney General Merrick Garland just wasn’t made for these times, and, like Tom Hagen, he’s just not a wartime consigliere. I hung in there longer than most people I know. But, this week, the case against him got overwhelming. The man needs to be thanked for his service and then shown the door.

He is not equipped to use all the tools god gave the Department of Justice to thwart the genuine threat to the Republic that is El Caudillo del Mar-A-Lago, and the dangerous political climate he has created. The former president* should have been charged federally with insurrection literally years ago. (Hell, during Thursday’s oral arguments in the Supreme Court concerning the former president*’s eligibility under the 14th Amendment, even Justice Brett Kavanaugh wondered why he hadn’t been so charged, and Kavanaugh used to work for Ken Starr, if we’re talking about using all the DOJ’s tools at your disposal.) The DOJ should have gone hammer-and-tongs after all the members of Congress who had the slightest connection with the insurrection. Somebody higher than the bear spray crowd should have been arrested and held until trial. Some of the expensive loafers should have been confiscated during the booking process rather than all those duckboots.

Pierce praised Jack Smith, but noted that the appointment of a special counsel shouldn’t have been necessary. And then he got to what was “the end” for him–and for me.

Appointing a Republican hack like Robert Hur to “investigate” the non-crimes of the president was bad enough, but then to allow Hur to pile on a political hit piece about the president’s memory, thereby normalizing one of the former president*’s attack lines on DOJ stationery, is not admirably fair-minded, it’s constitutionally suicidal. God save us from the fair-minded. They’ll kill the country and wonder how they did it.

Garland evidently shares a widespread misconception harbored by pundits and many Democrats about America’s current politics: the belief that sane folks and MAGA extremists would be able to “work things out” if the sane folks would just be really, really “fair and balanced” in their responses to MAGA’s conspiracy theories, dirty tricks and lies. MAGA folks are just scared, and if we’re nice to them when they’re bludgeoning our Constitution and dismantling our government– if we just meet them halfway (or a bit further)– they’ll calm down and rejoin the ranks of the reasonable.

This is, to be polite about it, hogwash. The core MAGA cult is unreachable. They inhabit a different reality, one in which they are literally at war not only with the rest of America, but with the most fundamental idea of America.

Allowing Hur to include what was obviously a political hit job in a purportedly “investigative” report has been condemned by a number of prosecutors. It’s yet more evidence of Garland’s passivity–his utterly inadequate conduct of a position that requires more spine (okay, more balls) than he evidently possesses.

At some point, someone needs to tell Garland and other “make nice” Democrats that they are playing pickle ball against people waging war with AK-47s.


The Fourteenth Amendment

Here is the talk I will be delivering to the Danville Unitarians this morning. It’s longer than my usual posts, so–unless you feel the urge to visit or revisit the 14th Amendment– feel free to skip it!


Thanks to our current political environment—and especially to an argument that Section 3 of that Amendment requires barring Donald Trump from the ballot—we’ve seen an explosion in references to the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But the 14th Amendment has been incredibly important for a long time, for reasons having nothing to do with Section 3. Together with the 13th and 15th Amendments, the 14th is credited with strengthening and “reframing” the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Together, they are frequently referred to as our Second Founding.

It’s presumably due to that current interest that I was asked to talk about the 14th Amendment today, so you will get the equivalent of my class lecture on the subject. I apologize in advance…

The 13th Amendment, as you undoubtedly know, outlawed slavery, and the 15th forbid abridging a citizen’s right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Together with the 14th, they are the Reconstruction Amendments.

Of the three, the 14th Amendment is the lengthiest and most ambitious. Thanks mainly to the Equal Protection clause, it is now considered to be a part of the Bill of Rights.

The first Section is the one with which most of us are familiar; It reads:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The Congressman who drafted the 14th Amendment, John Bingham, was very clear that his intention was to make the Bill of Rights binding on the states. Most Americans don’t realize that, prior to passage of the 14th Amendment, the Bill of Rights limited only the federal government. Bingham insisted that his language—“privileges and immunities” encompassed the entire Bill of Rights, and made them binding upon the states, and the contemporaneous arguments for and against passage tended to focus on that stated outcome.

Nevertheless, after the 14th Amendment was passed, it took the Supreme Court a number of years and a collection of discrete cases to apply most of the constraints of the Bill of Rights against state and local government actors, a process called (for some reason) incorporation.

Prior to passage of the 14th Amendment, state and local officials could “establish” religions, prevent you from exercising your right to speak freely, engage in blatantly discriminatory behaviors and other activities that violated the first 8 Amendments of the Bill of Rights.

An important clause in Section One established birthright citizenship—which has recently become something of a flashpoint for the considerable number of racists and self-defined “patriots” who want to close America’s borders and prevent the children of immigrants from becoming American citizens. Since most, if not all of the people arguing against birthright citizenship are not descended from Native Americans, the hypocrisy is rather noticeable.

The Second Section of the Amendment is historically interesting, but generally obsolete—it forbids denying the right to vote to any “of the male inhabitants” of a state who have reached the age of 21 and are citizens. Since passage of that language, we’ve extended the vote to women and lowered the voting age to 18.

The Third Section of the 14th Amendment is the one that has recently become relevant to the current election cycle. It reads:

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

The Supreme Court of the State of Colorado concluded that the language of Section 3 precludes Donald Trump from appearing on Colorado’s ballot. That decision is on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will now have to decide to affirm or reject Colorado’s analysis–whether Section 3 bars Donald Trump from appearing on all the nation’s presidential ballots. It certainly seems straightforward; in order to evade the clear language of Section 3, the Court would have to find that the President wasn’t an “officer” of the United States, or that the provision isn’t what lawyers call “self-executing”—that is, that it requires Congress to pass a bill to make it operative. Neither argument passes the smell test. The Court could also find that Trump didn’t engage in insurrection, a finding which would be equally unpersuasive. Given the Justices’ performances at the oral argument on this case, I think we can safely assume that they will find a way to duck the clear implications of the Constitutional language.

Finally, Sections 4 and 5 confirm the validity of the national debt and authorize Congress to enforce the provisions of the 14th Amendment by “appropriate legislation.”

The most important operation of the 14th Amendment—at least in my opinion—is that it constitutionalized the Declaration of Independence’s promise of freedom and equality. Scholars refer to the Reconstruction Amendments as America’s “Second Founding,” because passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments transformed the nation’s charter from what was really an aggressively pro-slavery document into one that prohibited chattel slavery; it changed it from a document that was silent on the Declaration’s call for equality to one that granted equal citizenship to everyone born on American soil; and it changed the Constitution from a charter that stood aside while state governments abused individual rights to one that protected these rights against state government abuses.

A constitutional insistence on “equal protection of the law” effected a fundamental change in American politics and society. As historian Eric Foner has explained, no state gave Black people full legal equality before the Reconstruction era and the 14th amendment. Supreme Court decisions over the last century – outlawing racial segregation, decreeing “one person, one vote”, and many others – have rested on the 14th amendment. Foner and many other historians think the 14th Amendment should be seen as a form of “regime change” — an attempt to change the United States from a pro-slavery regime, which is what we had before the Civil War, to one based on equality, regardless of race. That’s a pretty fundamental change. Historian Heather Cox Richardson has written that the 14th Amendment established the power of the federal government to defend civil rights, voting, and government finances from a minority that had entrenched itself in power in the states and from that power base tried to impose its ideology on the nation.

The Fourteenth Amendment prevents government from denying citizens the “equal protection of the laws.” What constitutes “Equal Protection” can be complicated, because governments need to classify citizens for all kinds of perfectly acceptable reasons. For example, the law draws distinctions between children and adults, between motorists and pedestrians, and between smokers and non-smokers, and those classifications don’t run afoul of the 14th Amendment.

The Equal Protection doctrine is intended to prevent government from imposing inappropriate classifications; those based on criteria that are irrelevant to the subject of the law, or that unfairly burden a particular group.  The general rule is that a government classification must be rationally related to a legitimate government interest. A requirement that motorists observe a speed limit is clearly a classification related to government’s legitimate interest in public safety. A law that imposed different speed limits on African-American and Caucasian drivers just as clearly would be illegitimate.

Complicating it further, although laws can be discriminatory on their face (for example, a law saying only white males can vote); these days, laws meant to discriminate are usually crafted to achieve that result by design. That is, they are drawn to look impartial on their face, but to have a discriminatory effect. A rule that all firefighters must weigh over 180 pounds would prevent many more women from being firefighters than men, despite the fact that weight is not an indicator of the ability to handle a fire hose or climb a ladder.

There are also situations in which genuinely neutral laws are applied in a discriminatory fashion. The phrase “Driving While Black” grew out of statistics showing that some police officers were disproportionately stopping black motorists for speeding.

The courts will look more closely at classifications that burden constitutional rights, or disadvantage members of groups that have historically been subject to discrimination. Lawyers call that process of taking a closer look “heightened” or “strict” scrutiny.

The Equal Protection doctrine is intended to prevent government from disadvantaging individuals and minorities of whom majorities may disapprove. Equal Protection guarantees—like all the other provisions in the Bill of Rights—  apply only to government actions. Civil Rights statutes address private-sector discrimination. Here in Indiana, for example, our civil rights statutes don’t forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, so unless you live in a city or town with a civil rights ordinance, private companies in your town can fire people for being gay, and restaurants can refuse to sell pizza to someone perceived to be gay.

Essentially, the Equal Protection Clause requires government to treat citizens as individuals, not as members of a group. American laws are supposed to be based upon a person’s civic behavior, not her gender, race or other identity. So long as we obey the laws, pay our taxes, and generally conduct ourselves in a way that doesn’t endanger or disadvantage others, we are entitled to full civic equality.  That guarantee of equal civic rights has unleashed the productivity of previously marginalized groups and contributed significantly to American prosperity. As we are seeing, it has also motivated a considerable backlash from people who see equality for “those people” as an attack on their “rightful” social privilege.

Critics of Equal Protection often argue that equality and liberty are at odds: that an individual’s liberty includes the right to dislike or disapprove of others and that true liberty would include the right to act on those negative opinions. What the 14th Amendment says, in essence, is: fine. Dislike Black people, or Jews or Gays. Don’t invite them to dinner. Tell your daughter not to date them. But you may not ask government to pass rules that discriminate against them or that prevent them from  participating as equals in the political system or civil society.

With that, I will conclude this admittedly very superficial description of the 14th Amendment. I’m happy to answer questions!


Attacking Education

Indiana’s terrible legislature is–as usual– considering several terrible bills. One of those is a thinly-veiled attack on Hoosier higher education.

Senate Bill 202 would establish government oversight of tenure and promotion for all faculty teaching at the state’s public universities. The bill would require those institutions to “deny, limit, or terminate continued employment to faculty if certain conditions related to free inquiry, free expression, and intellectual diversity are not met.”

The author of S.B. 202 wasn’t taking any chances that a classroom discussion violating his quixotic definition of “intellectual diversity” might go unchallenged; SB 202 also establishes a reporting system encouraging students and employees to file complaints against any faculty member they feel is failing to meet the new pro-conservative conditions. It also adds two additional alumni representatives to university boards of trustees.

The Indianapolis Star has published an opinion piece that describes the bill and its likely effects: the departure of competent faculty and an enforced intellectual conformity, a la DeSantis’ Florida. The article reported on the real motives of the bill’s supporters and the political dishonesty involved.

The bill is similar to proposals advanced in other majority-Republican state legislatures — in Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Texas — that seek to establish political oversight of tenure and promotion procedures, curriculum planning, and student services at public institutions of higher learning. Such initiatives are part of a concerted effort to curb the expansion of diversity, equity, and inclusion policies and programs that many colleges and universities across the country have adopted.

Sen. Spencer Deery, R-Lafayette, the bill’s author, has cited partial and unspecified polling data in a number of press reports that purport to show 46% of right-leaning students not feeling welcome to express their views on college campuses in Indiana. In fact, no such Gallup survey results exist.

The figure of 46% does, however, show up in a 2022 study conducted by political science professors at the University of North Carolina (and much cited by conservative advocacy groups) that seems to confirm Deery’s worries. But that study only surveyed students across eight institutions in the UNC system (and even there, with a sample size of 500 students, a mere 2.5% of the student population), not in Indiana.

Of course, as the author notes, even if a more rigorous survey produced the same results, S.B. 202 wouldn’t alleviate the problem. Instead, it would turn Indiana’s campuses into incubators of political correctness and intellectual conformity and would replace the scholarly and professional basis for employing faculty with political litmus tests.

The article ends with a pertinent question: why is a political party that holds a supermajority in the state legislature, the governorship, both U.S. Senate seats, and 7 out of 9 seats so alarmed by the prospect of actual education on the state’s college campuses?

I think we all know the answer to that question.

All available polling and research confirms that the more educated voters are, the more likely they are to vote, and the more likely they are to vote Democratic.

Here in Red Indiana, any threat education poses to GOP dominance will be delayed, thanks to gerrymandering and the lack of a mechanism to overcome it (not to mention the ongoing “brain drain” that sends our brightest graduates to states more congenial to that pesky diversity and inclusion), but our legislative overlords are looking down the road. The rural districts that reliably send MAGA Republicans to the Statehouse are emptying out, and even in the hinterlands, some of Indiana’s small towns are showing signs of dreaded culture change–welcoming immigrants and other “diverse” town-folks.

Several political observers have noted that MAGA Republicans are prone to projection–that when they hurl an accusation at Democrats or “Never Trump” Republicans, they are usually accusing their targets of behavior of which they themselves are guilty. Senate Bill 202 is an effort to indoctrinate students attending the state’s institutions of higher education; anyone who has been paying attention is aware that Republicans have been insisting that teachers, librarians and professors are “indoctrinating” students by introducing them to subversive “liberal” ideas.

The problem is, indoctrination is the antithesis of genuine education.

Educated individuals can recognize complexity, live with ambiguity, and discuss, negotiate and compromise with people who disagree with them. Today’s MAGA voter rejects complexity, is terrified by ambiguity, doesn’t understand the concept of negotiation and refuses to compromise. To be a MAGA Republican means to believe in a black and white universe threatened by any rapprochement with fellow-citizens who differ.

Education and intellectual inquiry are the enemy. Hence S.B. 202.


Defining Our Terms

A recent headline asked the wrong question. The TIMES headline read “America’s Becoming Less Religious. Is Politics to Blame?”

The correct question is: has politics become religion?

The article begins with statistics. It quotes results from GallupPew, and PRRI, showing that the percentage of Americans who identify with any religion is in steady decline, “as are those who believe in God, the devil, Heaven, Hell, or angels; who say religion is a very important part of their life; maintain membership in a church or synagogue; or attend church regularly.”

The article proceeds to examine the possible causes of that decline.

Economic prosperity and functional governance (both wonderful things) can weaken our felt need for religious resources. For example, much of what religious institutions historically provided America’s citizens—education; counseling; support for the needy; marriage options; entertainment; and explanations for how the world works—are increasingly provided by the state and the market. Church participation has become more optional, just one more activity middle-class families do in the suburbs—or not.

Another factor is simply the inevitable consequence of living in an increasingly cosmopolitan, multiracial democracy where liberal values of tolerance are celebrated. Diverse neighborhoods, schools, and civic institutions force us to confront the reality that there are wonderful people out there who don’t share our religious beliefs. Our children will be friends with one another, maybe even spouses. Rising generations find the divisive dogma of many religious groups increasingly strange, if not offensive.

There is another explanation that the article explores: politics.

For the past few decadessociologists and political scientists have demonstrated across multiple studies that as Christianity has become increasingly aligned with right-wing conservatism and the Republican Party, Americans who might have otherwise identified as Christians on surveys are now identifying as “nothing in particular” or “none.” The conclusion many seem to be drawing is “If this is what it means to be religious, count me out.”

We see quite a bit of that reaction on this site. And as the article notes, that reaction is mirrored by political conservatives, who have become increasingly likely to identify with religion because they see it identifying them as Trump supporters–actually (although the article doesn’t explicitly acknowledge it) as White Nationalists. White Americans identifying as “White Evangelical,” see the label itself as meaning “pro-Trump MAGA conservative.”

The article assumes that “This is another way that politics has driven secularization”– that the association between right-wing politics and religion driving young progressives away from religion is also secularizing religious folks. It compares the former phenomenon to the resurgence of Russian Orthodoxy in Putin’s Russia, where the number of Russians who identify with Russian Orthodoxy has grown, but the growth doesn’t reflect a rise in religious practices like church attendance and prayer. Instead, it reflects a rise in nationalistic fervor, ethnocentrism, and a fondness for the old Soviet Union and Stalin.

And that brings me back to my long-ago interpretation of Soviet Communism, which I saw not as an economic theory–at least, not primarily–but as a religion, a belief system.

The linked article is interesting, and as far as it goes, informative and factual. But it doesn’t grapple with what I see as the most important question, namely what is religion? I’d define it as a belief system based in faith rather than on demonstrable fact– a belief system that elevates certain values and behaviors on the basis of convictions that are simply not subject to empirical confirmation.

How is a belief that White Christians are superior beings entitled to pre-eminence in American life any less “religious” than a belief in the existence of heaven or hell?

You can undoubtedly come up with numerous examples of what we usually call “ideological” beliefs. What the studies cited in the linked article really demonstrate is that–at least in today’s contentious culture– “religion” and “ideology” have become virtually indistinguishable. And that’s a problem, because what we have come to call “culture war” is really a debate about whose belief system should be imposed on everyone else.

Political scientists tell us that laws are legitimate when they are agreed to by majorities of citizens holding very different world-views: for example, Americans of virtually all beliefs agree that murder, robbery and rape are wrong, and should be punished. (Although we still debate the definitions of even those terms.)

Americans aren’t really getting “less religious,” but they are admittedly getting less traditionally religious. Political ideologies have morphed into a different kind of religion. One is grounded in respect for pluralism and equal liberty of conscience. The other is intent upon protecting what they believe to be their god-given superior social status.

Compromise seems unlikely.