13 February 2012

Other bits and pieces

I don't have much to say on Whitney Houston.

I suppose kind of like MJ, it's difficult to assess as a tragedy the end of life for a person whose achievements were largely limited to a short span of cultural brilliance or popularity. In the case of Whitney, it's likely true that drug problems did cause a tragic element (in the classical "tragic flaw" hero sense), and that these are, unlike MJ's bizarre life story post-fame, more tolerable for inclusion. Particularly given music's unfortunate correlation as a creative art with drug use and abuse already. But unlike say, Cobain, Hendrix, or even Amy Winehouse for those that found her interesting culturally, Whitney wasn't cut down in the prime of a musical career by problems with drug abuse. We, as a society, were not preempted from her achievements in an obvious sense. Still, it's possible to concede that these drug problems maintained an issue as to any putative post-breakout performances in concerts or other venues or impeded her ability to produce new and significant works to add to her achievements. So as I say, I'm not sure how to assess this.

Also, like with MJ, I'm probably less of a fan of her work than most. I stopped finding MJ very impressive after 1983 and would put him in a pantheon of overrated musical superstars with Elvis or Sinatra, or his contemporary Madonna (this is not to say that none of these were superstars, just that they shouldn't be so highly regarded as they are relative to Lennon/McCartney, Zeppelin, Louis Armstrong, etc, in my view). Unlike MJ, Whitney was overshadowed by others in her specific field of performance very quickly (ie, Mariah Carey). I don't much like the Star-Spangled Banner in its traditional performance. My favorite renditions were, by far, Marvin Gaye and Hendrix over her Iraq War Super Bowl one. So your mileage may vary on how significant this was as a cultural note.

I'm kind of tired of the Komen v Planned Parenthood debate. Mostly because Komen has little to contribute to society in my view anyway and makes for an unsympathetic opponent. Which made the strange HHS rule on birth control and the "lack" of religious exemption a refreshing change of pace in the culture war's endless debate. It's one that I have much more mixed reactions to and more to ponder as a result.

As an atheist and skeptic, I am personally opposed to the antiquated views of the religious toward the use and adoption of birth control more broadly, and to the language they often use that proposes emergency contraception as some sort of abortion device when scientifically speaking it is hardly anything close to such a thing. But I'm also deeply aware that supporting the interests of individuals and organisations to express their religious beliefs or to have those beliefs respected and protected by laws is a very sure way to have my own views on similar issues to be also respected and legally protected. Weakening this wall between church and state, and permitting the state to run over such ideas, even though they be bad ideas, is not generally a very effective way to get such institutions to amend their views. Some points though are necessary

1) Actual religious institutions, like churches and explicitly religious charities, are still excluded and thereby protected in the new regulations. What is not excluded are things like Catholic hospitals and schools, particularly colleges, which serve the broader public and generally employ people without explicit religious litmus testing. I'm not sure that these institutions should follow explicitly religious ideas in their financial decisions for things like health care coverage for their employees, or the provision of services to their employees, students, or the public at large, as opposed to organisations with a more explicit religious function like churches or some charities. But I'm also not confident the state should necessarily require it either. This is, in my case, largely because I'm not sure the state should be requiring very much of private institutions in the first place, to say nothing of religious ones. The religious freedom, a compelling first amendment issue, is also in mind, but it carries less weight for me than the question of what exactly the state should be able to mandate in the form of public behavior.

2) The state gets to require it because most of these institutions accept and have substantial public funding from all levels of government. Were these more private institutions in the tradition of religious mandates, this would likely not be at issue. Whether the state should be funding these organisations and institutions or not is a very different question, but one that should be at least open to discussion. It is at least arguable that they are providing public benefits worth augmenting and encouraging through provisions of education and health care, as well as other charitable works. Though it is possible the state could just as easily fund less explicitly religious institutions to achieve the same ends and avoid the entanglements of religion and state. Alternatively the state could allow individual choice to reveal any consumer preferences for religiously motivated entities providing said public goods, ie whether the public at large actually cares if religious institutions are involved in health care or education, which I doubt is a majority concern, particularly in higher education. And also stop protecting parochial hospitals, or hospitals generally, with local monopolies to allow for more local competition in health care services. This would allow said institutions to establish their own rules on what services they would or would not provide and still allow the local community to establish access to services they demand where one institution refuses to provide it. This cuts both ways as access to birth control or abortion is on one side of the divide, and prayer in school or religious instruction is on another. Deeply religious people would be free to send their kids to go pray in schools without imposing on people who don't care as an example.

3) Returning to the question of mandates, I'm not entirely sure why health care insurers should be requiring first dollar coverage of birth control per se. I think it should be optional. I think of the myriad of things that we do require first dollar coverage, which vary of course in different state laws, this is at least arguably useful in terms of improving health and social outcomes. My own questioning of whether it should be a first dollar coverage issue is largely that I'm skeptical that health care coverage should operate in such a manner anyway. Once that logic is proposed and accepted, which I personally haven't accepted, there's at least an argument that this is the sort of thing that should go in that pot of things that insurers would provide in that way. It's cheaper for them than funding lots of pregnancies, miscarriages, and even abortions. It's then a further leap of logic as to whether the state should be requiring insurers to do this or whether they would have some self-interested basis for doing so (in the same way that they, or large employers, often offer small cash bounties for their customers or employees to quit smoking or seek treatment and advice for alcohol or weight problems).

4) I'm confused as to why it's largely evangelicals who oppose this ruling and not Catholics per se, who at least have consistent and historical religious decrees inveighing them against the use of birth control. I get the impression that this is an overly politicized issue whereby the varieties of evangelical protestants are opposing something largely because it is coming from their less favored liberal opponents. One will note that these are the same people who oppose funding for Planned Parenthood, but are perfectly fine with public funding for faith-based initiatives, so it's hardly a big government concern originating out of a big government meddling problem. It's more of a "not our big government" problem. Alternatively, these are the sorts of people precisely likely to confuse emergency contraception with so called abortofacients, but they're also making it sound like a "religious freedom" issue as opposed to a specific litmus test relating to abortion policies.

5) As far as the intersection of church and state, I think there are far more arenas where church does get the state to form laws that are inappropriate than in access to birth control as mandated by the state through health insurance laws. Gay marriage is a prominent example in modern times, along with related adoption issues, as is restriction to access to birth control (and to a lesser extent, abortion), for the general population. Indeed, the Bishops are busy trying to prevent access to birth control for any employer's insurance, not just their own related institutions. There are less prominent examples in the form of dry counties, blue laws, Sunday business hours being controlled, alcohol licensing, anti-drug campaigns, wedding planning enjoying often state or local protectionism for traditional churches and so on. Overlooked in the church and state debate and religious freedom protection is the amount of involvement "church" already possesses in the "state". It is not necessary for the state to protect religious freedom by accepting the dictates of religious institutions as valid for all.
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