With liberty and justice (especially justice) for all

Come on, everybody sing along, you all know the words: Lock him up! Lock him up! Lock him up!!

A Manhattan jury found Donald Trump guilty of all 34 charges of falsifying business records Thursday, an unprecedented and historic verdict that makes Trump the first former president in American history to be convicted of a felony.

We can now say it, with the jury’s stamp of approval: Donald Trump is a convicted criminal, found guilty by a jury of his peers. He coerced a porn actress to have sex with him and paid her to keep quiet about it, with the intent of covering up the affair so it wouldn’t sway voters. Then he schemed to disguise the payment, falsely labeling it a legal expense in violation of campaign finance law.

I’m thrilled by the verdict, but I’m not especially surprised. New York is hostile territory for Trump, and there was never any serious doubt about his guilt. His only real legal strategy was the Shaggy defense.

There were only two plausible ways for him to get off: either a MAGA fanatic would sneak onto the jury and deadlock it regardless of the evidence, or the jurors would acquit out of fear of reprisal from his followers if they convicted him. (Trump tried his best to intimidate the court, all but begging his followers to show up, but almost none did.)

But neither of those things happened. The jurors weighed the facts and the testimony, did their duty, and held firm in the face of intimidation. Every decent American owes them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Given recent history, it was all too easy to believe that Trump would skate free. He built his political career on an image of impunity, boasting that he’s above the law and immune to consequences. (Remember “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody”?) But, like everything else he’s built in his life, it’s a flimsy illusion with nothing substantial behind it.

The jury’s unanimous verdict (not to mention the verdicts against him in Tish James’ tax-fraud case and E. Jean Carroll’s sexual-assault and defamation lawsuits) is an antidote to cynicism. It’s a resounding declaration that no one is above the law, not even an ex-president. The corrupt right-wing Supreme Court may not want to admit it, but twelve New York jurors said it loud and clear.

This isn’t the full measure of justice. Like Al Capone’s conviction for tax evasion, it was a minor crime compared to everything else he’s done. Trump deserves to face judgment for his theft of classified documents, for his attempts to steal the election, and especially for his role in inciting January 6. Thanks to his successful perversion of the Supreme Court, it’s unlikely he’ll stand trial on any of those charges before the election. However, at least this is one consequence he couldn’t escape.

What this means for the election, I couldn’t guess. Even if Trump were imprisoned, which I doubt will happen, it wouldn’t prevent him from running. (Although I’d dearly love to see him sentenced to community service, like picking up trash on the street.) He’d still have to be defeated at the ballot box, which means the real impact is in the court of public opinion.

However, it may be premature to say that everyone’s already made up their mind and this won’t change anything. To us engaged, politically-aware voters, it may seem that way – because we mostly interact with people who are either like us, or people across the aisle who are that side’s version of us. Neither of those groups are going to change their mind, one way or the other.

But there are still people who don’t pay much attention to politics, who don’t know what’s at stake even now. This news may move them. There are some polling results that suggest as much. In a close election decided by narrow margins in a handful of swing states, even a few people who decide not to vote for a criminal could make a difference.

Whatever happens, this is another step in the continuing downward spiral of the Republican party. Not a single one of them has renounced their support because of the verdict or called on him to step aside. The alleged “family values” conservatives are wholeheartedly backing a sexual assaulter who cheated on his wife with a porn star, paid her hush money to keep quiet about it, and then tried to cover it up. The “law and order” party is lining up behind a convicted felon. They’re throwing away any scrap of principle they ever had, and gleefully following him into the sewer, in their grab for power above all else.

To start, let’s censure Alito

[Previous: The cartoonish corruption of the Supreme Court]

We already knew about the brazen corruption of the Supreme Court’s right-wing justices. Clarence Thomas, but also Samuel Alito, have a habit of accepting lavish gifts from billionaire friends with cases before the court. They don’t recuse themselves, but rule the way their plutocrat buddies want them to.

Now we’ve found out something much worse. In addition to his enthusiasm for bribes, Alito is also a fan of the January 6 insurrectionists:

After the 2020 presidential election, as some Trump supporters falsely claimed that President Biden had stolen the office, many of them displayed a startling symbol outside their homes, on their cars and in online posts: an upside-down American flag.

One of the homes flying an inverted flag during that time was the residence of Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., in Alexandria, Va., according to photographs and interviews with neighbors.

The upside-down flag was aloft on Jan. 17, 2021, the images showed. President Donald J. Trump’s supporters, including some brandishing the same symbol, had rioted at the Capitol a little over a week before. Mr. Biden’s inauguration was three days away.

…During Mr. Trump’s quest to win, and then subvert, the 2020 election, the gesture took off as never before, becoming “really established as a symbol of the ‘Stop the Steal’ campaign,” according to Alex Newhouse, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder.

…Hanging an inverted flag outside a home was “an explicit signifier that you are part of this community that believes America has been taken and needs to be taken back,” Mr. Newhouse said.

Alito claims, implausibly, that the upside-down flag was his wife’s choice to display, not his, and wasn’t intended to convey a political message about the election, but was in response to an altercation she was having with one of her neighbors. This is bullshit and everyone knows it.

Not least, because we then found out that Alito’s house was flying another anti-democracy flag – the Christian nationalist “Appeal to Heaven” flag – as recently as 2023:

The newspaper published photos from neighbors and from Google Street View that show an “Appeal to Heaven” flag flying outside the justice’s beach house in Long Beach Island, New Jersey.

The flag, featuring a green pine tree on a white background, dates to the Revolutionary War, but is now linked with Christian nationalists and those who support former President Donald Trump.

The “Appeal to Heaven” flag was commissioned by Americans during the Revolutionary War, but it fell out of fashion for hundreds of years. But in the last ten years, it was readopted by the Christian right, at the urging of a radical pastor named Dutch Sheets. For them, it symbolizes their belief that God is on their side and will grant them victory regardless of human choices. It was carried by Trump supporters during the January 6 riot and Capitol invasion:

“When the election was called for Joe Biden and Trump refused to concede, almost all the prophets began saying God would have to intervene. Dutch Sheets converted his Give Him 15 prayer app into a YouTube show that became a clearinghouse for all the conversations about overturning the election, and Sheets was constantly infusing this Appeal to Heaven idea.

…It’s not a coincidence that you see Appeal to Heaven flags all over the place on Jan. 6. We know that at least one rioter wore an Appeal to Heaven flag inside the Capitol as a cape. When the FBI went to arrest him later, they found the Appeal to Heaven flag spattered with blood and mace. We can see in one video as the crowds breach the barricades, somebody with an Appeal to Heaven flag using that flagpole to beat down a police officer.” (source)

There’s no innocent explanation for Alito flying not one, but two flags linked to insurrection, election denial and Christian nationalism. Even the New York Times, where vacuous view-from-nowhere journalism is an ingrained habit, couldn’t resist a pointed take about the political implications:

This spring, the justices are already laboring under suspicion by many Americans that whatever decisions they make about the Jan. 6 cases will be partisan. Justice Clarence Thomas has declined to recuse himself despite the direct involvement of his wife, Virginia Thomas, in efforts to overturn the election.

There’s no mincing words: Alito is an election denier. What’s worse, he doesn’t care who knows it. Announcing his views by, literally, flying the flag for them indicates an unconcern with public perception. That suggests a feeling of impunity on his part. He thinks he’s above accountability or consequences.

We need to show him otherwise. Democrats in Congress have introduced a resolution to censure Alito. The FFRF is calling on atheists and skeptics to contact their congresspeople to support it.

This might seem like a waste of time, because censure is symbolic. By itself, it doesn’t accomplish anything. The religious right only cares about power – they’ll do whatever they can get away with, if no one stops them – and censure, even if it’s successful, doesn’t detract from his power.

However, it’s a good start. It’s an official recognition of his wrongdoing, and that lays the groundwork for more. If it passes, it builds momentum for further action: like ethics hearings, impeachment, mandatory recusal, expanding the court, stripping it of jurisdiction, or other measures that are within Congress’ power.

Even if none of those things happen now or after the next election, it can only be good to keep the hot light of scrutiny on Alito and his ilk. The court is a political institution, even if the justices try to pretend otherwise. It has no means of enforcing its decisions. What power it has comes from a general belief in its impartiality and legitimacy. If the justices feel the walls closing in on them, they may feel compelled to issue more liberal rulings than they otherwise would have, as a way of trying to prove they’re not biased.

Why isn’t religion Dionysian?

Poussin, A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term (1632). Oil on canvas, 98 x 142 cm.

Here’s a thought for today: Is it a coincidence that all the major Western religions are anti-sex?

Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Mormonism all equate sex with sin. They set elaborate rules that control, restrict and shape sexual impulses. They demand monogamy without exception and condemn sex outside marriage. They crusade against LGBTQ rights, divorce, masturbation, polyamory, pornography, and any other kind of sex that doesn’t fit this paradigm.

They’re deeply ambivalent about the body, as in the Garden of Eden story where shame about nakedness is the first symptom of sin entering the world, or the Old Testament codes which decree that wet dreams, menstruation and birth make people ritually unclean, or the New Testament verses where Jesus recommends castration. Many of them, especially the Roman Catholic church, assert that sex should always be for procreation and never for pleasure alone.

And because these religions all label women as the sex class, they treat them as especially liable to sin and to tempt others into sin, and burden them with heavy rules and obligations that don’t apply to men. Conservative Judaism, for example, teaches that women must remain segregated and silent during religious services, lest they distract men from holiness. The Christian patriarchy movement treats women as property to be handed off from father to husband, and holds that they have a duty to act and dress modestly so there’s no chance of causing men to feel lust. Conservative branches of Islam force women to be veiled and virtually invisible in public.

It’s not just that these religions have so many rules about sex. It’s the extreme emphasis they put on enforcing these rules, both by policing their own members and by trying to write them into secular law where possible. Judging by the behavior of Christians, Christianity cares far more about sexual behavior and sexuality than it does about any other cause, like feeding the hungry or ending war.

This is especially strange because the religious obsession with controlling sexuality is, arguably, their biggest weakness. It means that rebellion will always be pleasurable and tempting. They’re battling against human nature, rather than working in tandem with it.

The churches’ relentless opposition to LGBTQ rights has severely damaged their moral standing. They’re bleeding young people all around the world because of it. The same goes for feminism. Because the burden of anti-sex rules falls mostly on women, religion will always be public enemy number one for women who assert their rights as equal human beings with autonomy.

I can imagine a world where religion was different. This could be a world of Dionysian orgies and sex as a sacred act, as some pagan faiths may have believed.

But even without that, I can imagine a world where sex wasn’t the chief preoccupation of religious moralizers. It would be a world where the churches never developed sex-negative, body-shaming attitudes, rigid ideas about gender, or relentless hate for LGBTQ people. These alternate religions could still recommend fidelity and honesty and treating your partners well, but otherwise they wouldn’t be overly concerned about what people do with their bodies.

So why do we live in our world and not that one? Is it just random chance, a stroke of bad luck? Or is there a reason why patriarchal, sex-negative, prohibitionist churches won out over free-love paganism?

If you were inclined to evolutionary psychology, you might argue that monogamy is natural for humanity, and religious rules just reflect this innate preference. However, this theory has a harder time explaining why so many religions have such a negative attitude, bordering on revulsion, toward the body – both our own and others’. Surely we didn’t evolve to feel disgust at our own bodies.

Conservative religions teach people to feel shame and guilt over natural bodily functions; they frown on sexual pleasure; they try to keep people ignorant of the basic mechanics of sex for as long as possible. None of those make sense if you assume that promoting monogamous childbearing is the true goal. Some religions, especially Roman Catholicism, go further by requiring celibacy for their priests and exalting virginity for women. That’s literally the most “unnatural” belief possible, from an evolutionary standpoint. This is a strong signal that these rules are cultural, not genetic.

If we reject the null hypothesis that sex taboos arose because of chance, the best explanation I can come up with has to do with reinforcing hierarchy.

Most of the anti-sex religions are highly hierarchical, and that probably isn’t coincidence. Sex guilt is a useful tool for controlling worshippers. Teaching people to hate their bodies and feel shame for their natural impulses can become a focal point for rebellion, but for those who remain loyal, it ensures they’re always fighting against themselves.

It makes these religions feel more needed, in the sense that believers see life as a constant struggle against temptation. It means they can’t put confidence in their own judgment, but have to look to external authorities for validation and forgiveness. And it’s possible that, in war and conquest, hierarchical religions have an advantage. It’s easier for them to weld their followers together into an obedient army.

If this is true, it yields a prediction: the more egalitarian forms of these religions will also be less prudish. That’s not just because religions that are more liberal in general are also more liberal about sex. It’s because, without a steep hierarchy and the emphasis on obedience to dogma, they have less need to control their membership.

The rights of a river

Whanganui River – Felix Engelhardt, CC BY 2.0 DEED

Corporations are people, my friend. Or, at least, they are under the legal regime that prevails under capitalism. So why can’t a river be a person? Or a forest? Or a mountain?

To those of us steeped in Cartesian dualism, it sounds like a bizarre idea. However, there’s precedent for it in the cultures and belief systems of indigenous people around the world.

For example, Native American languages like Potawatomi draw little distinction between what English speakers would consider animate versus inanimate objects. They treat everything as alive and aware in its own way. Some Western legal scholars, like Christopher Stone and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, advocated a similar theory.

And in the last few years, a handful of countries are warming to the idea. In 2014, New Zealand passed a law that granted legal personhood to Te Urewera, a rainforest and national park. In 2019, they followed up by granting personhood to the Whanganui River, which is sacred to the Maori people:

When the New Zealand parliament passed the Te Awa Tupua Act granting the Whanganui River system legal personhood, the decision sent waves across the globe, settling the longest water dispute in the nation’s history and establishing a unique legal framework rooted in the Maori worldview of the Whanganui tribes, who revere the river as a tupuna, or ancestor.

The law begins by recognising the river as an indivisible and living being called Te Awa Tupua and outlines four core principles from the tribes’ perspective, including their inalienable connection to the river. Then, it states this being “has all the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of a legal person”.

The idea has also spread to India, where in 2017 a court ordered the granting of legal personhood to the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers.

Because our legal system privileges human interests above other beings, 20th-century environmentalists argued for preservation on the grounds that nature gives us aesthetic pleasure. It’s understandable why they made this argument, but from a moral perspective it’s backwards. It assumes wilderness has no value of its own. Nature is only permitted to exist insofar as it serves the desires of human beings. The ideology of capitalism treats everything as valueless, unless it proves otherwise by making a profit.

Even by this narrow accounting, nature should be worth more than the value of tourist dollars. We depend on the natural world for our existence, not vice versa. It gives us the air we breathe, the water we drink, the fertile soil where we grow our food, the oceans we fish, the insects that pollinate our crops.

However, more fundamentally, we lose something precious when a beautiful wild place falls to the bulldozers. Each species is unique and irreplaceable, the distilled result of millions of years of evolution, no more and no less than human beings. It’s obscene to say that nature should only be allowed to exist if we can put a dollar value on it. Its right to exist should be the default. It’s destruction that should require a justification, not preservation.

It’s this reasoning that undergirds nature-as-person arguments. Obviously, a river or a forest can’t speak for itself or express its desires. But that’s not necessarily a problem. Our legal system already has ways of extending honorary personhood to all kinds of entities. A corporation has shareholders who make decisions on its behalf. A small child or a disabled person who can’t communicate can have an appointed guardian who speaks for them and watches out for their interests. We could imagine doing something similar for nature.

Of course, the wrinkle is that personhood brings both rights and responsibilities. A wild animal isn’t a person, so it doesn’t have rights, but it also isn’t treated as responsible for any harm it commits. We understand that it’s obeying its nature and can’t be expected to do otherwise. (Notwithstanding the fact that medieval Europeans put animals on trial for misdeeds.)

How would it work to grant personhood to a natural feature like a river? Is it a violation of a river’s rights to dam it for electricity, or to divert its water for irrigation? Does the river “mind”? And what if the river bursts its banks and destroys a town, or drowns a person? Can the river be sued for the harm it’s done?

Some commenters treat the issue of liability as a joke, but I think it’s a serious question. This is where the legal analogy of personhood starts breaking down. A corporation’s executives actually have control over what the corporation does, and they can be held responsible for harmful decisions they make on its behalf. A river’s guardian doesn’t.

For those reasons, I’m not convinced that personhood for nature is the right fit. But I do like the idea of granting nature enforceable rights of its own. It should have the freedom to exist, as far as is practical, free of degradation and encroachment. There could be guardians whose role it is to maintain the health of a river or a forest, protecting it from pollution and other harms.

This is the approach taken by Ecuador, for example, which added a “rights of nature” amendment to its constitution. Bolivia has done the same with its Law of Mother Earth. This strikes me as the right approach, and we can hope more nations adopt it.

It doesn’t mean an end to all new development or all use of natural resources for human benefit. But it does require something that’s almost never done right now: a careful analysis of the harms and benefits, rather than an implicit assumption that nature is worthless and rapacious destruction in the name of profit is always a good thing.

West Virginia is the future of red states

The abandoned, crumbling Coalwood High School in West Virginia

Coalwood High School, WV – Kelly Michals, CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed

What happens when white nationalists and anti-immigrant bigots get what they want? They’re finding out right now. There’s an article in the Wall Street Journal whose title sums it up: “Desperate for Workers but Dead Set Against Migrant Labor: The West Virginia Dilemma“.

West Virginia is suffering a slow-rolling demographic crisis. People are having smaller families, and because its economy never transitioned away from the dying coal industry, young people are moving away to find jobs. The result is an aging and shrinking population, and businesses desperate for workers and unable to find them:

There are so many elderly people and so few workers to take care of them that some old folks have died before getting off the wait list for home visits by health aides.

…Later that evening, at the Pendleton County High School boys’ basketball game, the gray-haired spectators outnumbered the students. Declining enrollment has meant that for the school to field teams, many athletic students need to play football, basketball and baseball, said Athletic Director Jackee Propst.

West Virginia’s population is among the oldest of any state. As a consequence, its labor-force participation rate is the second-lowest in the country, behind only Mississippi. It actually has fewer residents today than in 1940, the only state to have that grim distinction.

And the problem feeds on itself. The more people who move away, the fewer ties there are for the ones left behind, making them more likely to leave in turn. It’s a downward spiral that’s hard to stop:

The number of locations where business is conducted in West Virginia declined 9.3% between 2011 and 2021, according to the Census Bureau, the biggest drop in the U.S.

“We suffer from this vicious cycle,” said John Deskins, director of West Virginia University’s bureau of business and economic research. “The people who move away tend to be younger, more educated, more prepared for the workforce. And it makes the remainers older.”

The solution is obvious. West Virginia needs an infusion of fresh blood. It needs new people to move in, to buy property, to settle down, to start businesses and fill jobs, to build lives and have families.

To be clear, the problem isn’t that there are too few people in the world. Global population is still predicted to peak around ten billion by the end of the century. That’s enough human beings to accomplish anything we might reasonably imagine. The problem is there’s a mismatch between where people live and where labor is needed.

In other words, we need immigration.

That’s where the story takes a darkly ironic turn. Because while West Virginia desperately needs immigrants, its blood-red Republican government is doing everything it can to keep them out:

Since last year, Republican Gov. Jim Justice has signed legislation banning “sanctuary cities” in West Virginia and deployed that state’s own National Guard troops to the Mexican border in Texas. State lawmakers have introduced bills that would: require businesses to conduct additional screening for unauthorized workers; punish companies for transporting migrants who are deportable under U.S. law; create a program to enable state authorities to remove even some immigrants with legal status to work; and appropriate money for Texas to install more razor wire along the Rio Grande.

By all reason, West Virginia should be trying to rebrand itself as an attractive destination to move to. It should be touting its cheap land, abundant natural beauty (I want to see the New River Gorge in my life), low cost of living, and culture of hospitality. It should be throwing the gates wide open.

Instead, its state government is signaling by every means available that newcomers aren’t wanted. One Republican state representative (one of the very few foreign-born ones, no less!) has even proposed a bill to kick out refugees who’ve been legally granted asylum by the federal government:

This year, he co-sponsored a bill that would apply to a category of immigrants called “inspected unauthorized aliens”—those who haven’t entered the U.S. through an official port of entry but whom the federal government has allowed to stay and work while their legal status is in limbo.

If the bill becomes law, it would establish a program to transport them out of West Virginia.

The absurdity is beyond measure. The elderly are dying for lack of care, businesses are going bust because they can’t hire anyone, and at the same time, the state literally wants to expel people who are willing and able to work!

This is the paradigm example of how conservative ideology makes true believers’ lives worse. Republicans have ginned up a panic over immigration, trying to make it into an issue to attack Democrats with. Their tabloids and pundits scream about terrorists and gangs and faceless hordes flooding over the border. Their presidential candidates and governors traffic in white supremacist rhetoric about “shithole countries” and border walls topped with razor wire.

But their bigotry blows back onto them. Inevitably, conservatives don’t stop at using xenophobia as fodder for their attack ads. They internalize it and come to believe it themselves. And real crises, like the one West Virginia is now suffering, are the consequence.

Immigrants aren’t a problem, but a massive opportunity! West Virginia isn’t the only place that needs a shot in the arm. The fact that so many people still dream of coming to America is an asset most countries only wish they had. Barring the doors against them is like turning down a lottery jackpot. Immigrants are the solution to many woes, if only there weren’t so many bigoted Americans dead-set on keeping them out.

Unfortunately, West Virginians show no sign of reversing course. They’re clinging to their suspicion and hostility. And they’re going to get what they want: businesses shutting down for lack of workers; abandoned elderly people dying alone; vacant, rotting houses; once-prosperous communities becoming ghost towns; bridges and roads crumbling, communities reverting to wilderness, the light and life of civilization vanishing like a retreating tide.

To be clear, not all the people of West Virginia are ignorant hicks who deserve what they get. There are good people there, just as there are in every state. They don’t deserve to suffer the folly of their neighbors. My long-time, now sadly departed, correspondent and co-author Jim Haught was from West Virginia, and he was as staunch an atheist and a progressive as you might hope to meet.

However, it’s fair to say West Virginia is one of the reddest states in the country. In the 2016 election, it was the most Trump-loving of all the states, giving him 68% of its vote; and in 2020, an astonishing 69%. They adore his white supremacist rhetoric and anti-immigrant scaremongering. And they’re reaping the consequences. In a very real sense, the crisis consuming them is the one they voted for.

What makes the church choose tolerance?

[Previous: Let’s chat with Justin, the Catholic apologist AI]

My chat with Justin, the Catholic apologist AI, got me thinking. How does the Catholic church – or any church – decide what should be a matter of conscience for individual believers, versus what they want to make into law for everyone?

As an example, I asked whether the Catholic church believes contraception should be outlawed. This was Justin’s answer:

The Catholic Church teaches that contraception is morally wrong, based on the natural law and the divine plan for marriage and human sexuality. This is stated in the encyclical Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI. However, the Church does not necessarily advocate for making contraception illegal in civil law…. the Church also respects the freedom of conscience and the responsibility of individuals to make moral decisions.

I also asked about divorce. Here too, I got a similar answer from Justin’s canned repertoire:

The Catholic Church holds the belief that marriage is a lifelong commitment, as Jesus himself taught in the Gospel of Matthew: So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate. However, the Church does not necessarily advocate for making divorce illegal in civil law…. Remember, the Church’s teachings are about promoting the sacredness of the marital bond and the dignity of the human person, not about imposing religious beliefs on others.

I hope you noticed the giant loophole Justin left for itself. It said the church “does not necessarily advocate” outlawing divorce or contraception.

A weasel word of this magnitude means this response is only answer-shaped. It hasn’t actually answered the question at all. It means the church can put up a pretense of tolerance, while still claiming it’s consistent with Catholic doctrine if bishops start lobbying to revive the Comstock Act and to prosecute women for using birth control pills.

However, Justin’s answer was unambiguous on one point: the church respects individuals’ freedom of conscience.

Except when it doesn’t – because we all know that’s not the whole story. The Catholic church, like many other religious sects, can and does try to make it illegal for people to make choices the Vatican doesn’t think they should be making.

The church spent years and millions of dollars lobbying against marriage equality. They fought against all proposals for same-sex marriage, even when those proposals were strictly for civil commitments and didn’t require churches to participate.

And they’ve kept on fighting. Years after same-sex marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court, Catholic bishops were still lobbying against the Respect for Marriage Act, even though it did nothing more than give Congress’ stamp of approval to the decision that was already on the books. The church is also still punishing its members who support LGBTQ rights, seemingly at random.

Abortion is an even more relevant example. Justin gave a hair-raising answer about whether it should be legal:

The Catholic Church teaches that all human life is sacred from the moment of conception until natural death, as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. Therefore, the Church opposes abortion in all circumstances, including when the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life.

In other words, the Catholic position is that human life must be protected under all circumstances – except when the life is a pregnant woman. If the pregnancy threatens her life, then the church says to do nothing, even if the inevitable outcome is that both woman and fetus die. It’s a cult of maternal martyrdom in action. It’s the same deadly belief that killed Savita Halappanavar, and that’s now moved on to killing women in red states all across the U.S. They’re not willing to allow any latitude for freedom of conscience here!

One more example: the church is opposed to marijuana legalization. Their reasoning for this is that, if it can be abused, then it should be banned. This makes it especially inexplicable that they aren’t opposed to alcohol:

Msgr. Steven Rohlfs, a spiritual director at The Seminaries of St. Paul in St. Paul and a moral theologian with a specialty in medical ethics, told The Catholic Spirit Sept. 16 that marijuana is not “intrinsically disordered,” or something that by its very nature is not right with God, such as the acts of abortion, euthanasia and contraception. But “for most people, most of the time,” using marijuana is not a good idea, Msgr. Rohlfs said. With the best interests of individuals and society in mind, the Church opposes its recreational use. That can be said for many drugs, including alcohol and prescription medicines, he said.

So why is the church talking out of both sides of its mouth? What makes it choose tolerance on some issues, while demanding the imposition of theocratic law on others?

The answer isn’t theological, but political. There’s no principled reason for why the Catholic church has fought to block same-sex marriage and abortion and assisted dying and green burial, but isn’t lobbying to outlaw divorce or contraception or IVF. It’s nothing but a political judgment about the chances of success.

When the church doesn’t think it’s going to win the fight, it backs down and offers pious words about respecting human dignity and individual freedom. When the church does think it can win the fight, it goes to the mat to outlaw anything that offends Catholic dogma.

(Granted, the bishops have picked plenty of losing fights. They lost on same-sex marriage. They’re losing on marijuana legalization. They’re getting steamrolled on abortion everywhere the voters have a say and the choice isn’t made for them by right-wing courts or a gerrymandered legislature. I didn’t say it was good judgment.)

This is why we need secularism. We should never trust any church or sect to make laws for the rest of us, because they’ll legislate their beliefs to the exact extent of their power to do so. Laws that are for everyone have to be made on the basis of reasons and evidence that are available to everyone, not on any church’s peculiar beliefs about what God does and doesn’t approve of.

Lauren Southern is a victim of her own beliefs

More than anything else, right-wing culture warriors live to trigger the libs. They compete to one-up each other in saying the cruelest, most outrageous ideas they can dream up, and glory in the outrage they provoke.

But what happens when you try to build a life for yourself on an ideology like that? How well does it serve them when they’re not engaging in internet slapfights?

To find out, let’s meet Lauren Southern.

From alt-right to tradwife

In the 2010s, Southern emerged on the political scene as an alt-right provocateur. She built her career on mocking feminism and multiculturalism, as well as beating the drum for religious war (“The Crusaders did absolutely nothing wrong”).

Southern was also a member of Defend Europe, a white supremacist gang which claimed that immigrants fleeing war and disaster were invaders coming to conquer the West. In 2017, she tried to blockade a medical ship that was rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean. She talked about raising money to buy nets to snarl the motors of refugee vessels and made videos arguing for the “great replacement” conspiracy theory.

In 2019, Southern took the next logical step of her anti-feminist views. She announced that she’d gotten married and had a baby. She was embracing the “tradwife” lifestyle promoted by the religious right, which holds that only men should have jobs and women should be obedient, stay-at-home housewives.

After that, she disappeared from view.

“An ant-infested cabin without clean running water”

In 2023, Southern popped back up. She revealed that she had divorced her husband after just two years (warning: Daily Mail link). He had abandoned her and her son, without alimony or child support, and they were living in poverty in “an ant-infested cabin without clean running water” in a trailer park.

Her explanation was that her husband, a Catholic conservative, had a job with a security clearance that he lost because of his association with her:

‘The reality of losing his life’s work became too much for him… Going from living a James Bond lifestyle to being reduced to a boring middle manager with little to no upward mobility is crippling for ambitious men.’

Southern said her ex ‘took his resentment for this out’ on her, adding that he used a ‘variety of lesser reasons to propose divorce’ two years ago – including her ADHD.

Now we know that wasn’t the full story. In a new interview with Unherd, she says her husband was abusive. Her tradwife dream turned out to be a nightmare.

(Content note: The author of the Unherd interview espouses anti-trans and other right-wing views I don’t endorse. I’d have used an alternative source if I could, but there isn’t one. As always, examine sources carefully and exercise skepticism!)

Southern says:

There were warning signs from early on. “If I ever disagreed with him in any capacity he’d just disappear, for days at a time. I remember there were nights where he’d call me worthless and pathetic, then get in this car and leave.” But she didn’t see them, thanks to the simplified anti-feminist ideology she’d absorbed and promoted: “I had this delusional view of relationships: that only women could be the ones that make or break them, and men can do no wrong.” So she didn’t spot the red flags, even as they grew more extreme. “He’d lock me out of the house. I remember having to knock on the neighbour’s door on rainy nights, because he’d get upset and drive off without unlocking the house. It was very strange, to go from being this public figure on stage with people clapping, to the girl crying, knocking on someone’s door with no home to get into, being abandoned with a baby.”

Her husband forced her to do everything: all the household labor, all the child care. He even made her do his university homework for him. At the same time, he yelled at and insulted her for being lazy and worthless:

“I was told daily that I was worthless, pathetic. Deadweight. All you do is sit around and take care of the baby and do chores.” When Covid shut down all real-world public life, her situation became “hell on earth”. It was, she said, “the only time in my life where I idealised dying.”

… “He would just give me impossible tasks all day. Tasks that I simply could not finish. It felt like he would almost send me on errands with the intent of having me fail.”

According to the tradwife ideology she’d imbibed, women are always to blame for marital problems. If her husband was unhappy with her, it had to be her fault. The solution was to pray more, be more submissive, and try even harder to please him. But no matter what she tried, nothing worked. Eventually, when she went home to Canada for a funeral, he told her their marriage was over and abandoned her.

She further admits she’s not the only conservative woman in this predicament:

She tells me she knows many other women still suffering in unhappy “tradlife” marriages. One of her WhatsApp groups, she says, “is like the Underground Railroad for women in the conservative movement”. Some of these are prominent media figures: “There are a lot of influencers who are not in good relationships, who are still portraying happy marriage publicly, and bashing people for not being married while being in horrendous relationships.” She hopes that in speaking out she can reassure “all of these women who are thinking in their heads: I’m uniquely terrible, and I’m uniquely making a mistake” that no: something is more generally amiss.

Be careful what you wish for

Lauren Southern’s story is an ideal example of why you should be careful what you wish for. She wanted to be a tradwife: a traditional wife, in a traditional family, with traditional gender roles. Well, she got that – and everything that comes along with it.

After all, it’s extremely traditional for the man to be the tyrannical ruler of the household who forces his wife and children to obey, with violence if necessary. For most of history, beating a disobedient wife was a husband’s right. That’s still the case in many countries today, like Russia.

If you position yourself as an advocate of traditional values, this is what you’re signing up for. The past wasn’t peaceful or harmonious. It was defined by cruelty, brutality, and might-makes-right thinking. Anything less is sheer fantasy – the Disney-theme-park version of history.

By contrast, egalitarian marriage isn’t traditional. It’s modern, even (gasp!) feminist. The idea that it should be a crime for someone to coerce or abuse their spouse is very recent. In fact, it’s a radical notion that flies in the face of centuries of patriarchal tradition.

To be clear, I’m not gloating at Southern’s misfortune or saying she got what she deserved. I am saying that this is a warning for young people. Her story is an object lesson in why to reject conservative propaganda which promises life will be perfect if you stick to rigid gender roles.

It’s not as simple as saying Southern was just unlucky in her choice of husband. The tradwife ideology, because it teaches that men are entitled to absolute power, is inherently attractive to those with an unhealthy desire to dominate others. It’s very likely that a man who espouses these ideas is more likely to be abusive than the general population.

But, of course, there are abusive people on every part of the political spectrum. The other issue is: what do you do when you find yourself in that awful situation? What tools does your worldview give you to protect yourself?

Here, too, tradwife ideology leaves its true believers defenseless. It teaches women to blame themselves, to submit and obey, to make themselves small. Every abuser dreams of meeting someone who’s conditioned to be docile. It’s obvious what men get out of it, but there’s nothing that this worldview offers women other than misery.

Let’s chat with Justin, the Catholic apologist AI

Screenshot via Catholic Answers

Catholic Answers, a lay-run apologetics organization, is joining the AI-for-everything fad. In April, they launched “Justin“, an AI chatbot that answers questions about Catholicism.

(Initially, the character was called “Father Justin” and was dressed in priestly vestments, but Catholic Answers faced a wave of criticism for that branding. After only a few days, they decided that wasn’t such a good idea and defrocked their chatbot.)

Naturally, I had to give this AI a test run. I was curious to see how it would handle common atheist arguments. Also, I wonder if this is the future of religious evangelism. Instead of comic books left at bus stops, can we all look forward to spam from a babel of AIs, each one hardcoded to hawk its creators’ belief system?

Look and feel and technical specs

I assumed Justin would be a text interface, like ChatGPT and other large language models, where you type a question and get a written response. Not so.

Justin runs in a browser window, which displays an animated image of the avatar: a middle-aged, mustachioed and bearded white man, with a smile that’s probably meant to be serene but really just looks smug, posed in front of a palatial Roman vista.

There’s no text interface. You have to use a microphone to speak your question out loud, and the AI gives a spoken response. You can download a transcript of the conversation, but that’s the only concession to accessibility.

Whatever the reason for this choice, it takes a powerful machine to run it. I tried out Justin on a nearly-new gaming laptop with 32 GB of RAM and a built-in GPU, which I bought a year ago specifically to play around with AI models. Even this computer occasionally struggled to handle Justin’s resource demands. If I tried to run any other program in the background, the avatar’s speech broke up into laggy, echoey gibberish, and it could no longer comprehend my questions.

So, how does it do?

With ChatGPT and other LLMs, you can have something resembling a real conversation. That’s not the case with Justin.

I got the impression that Justin isn’t really conversing at all, in the sense of composing its own original answers to a query. Instead, it picks out keywords in your question, then selects a response from what I’m fairly sure is a pre-written list. It’s less like talking to a person – even a simulated one – and more like getting press releases from the Catholic church’s corporate PR department.

It makes sense that Catholic Answers would want to keep their AI on a tight leash, lest it start making up nonsensical answers as LLMs are prone to do. (Even so, Justin committed some comical missteps, like accepting people’s virtual confessions and granting them absolution, or giving the OK for siblings to marry each other.)

However, if you’re looking for consistency, you’re bound to be disappointed. You can’t back it into a rhetorical corner, because it will give one canned answer to one question, then a different canned answer to another question, without any concern for whether these responses contradict each other.

For example, I asked Justin if the Catholic church has ever changed any of its teachings. It said no:

The Catholic Church’s doctrines, especially those concerning faith and morals, have remained consistent throughout its 2,000-year history. This is based on Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16:18, And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. However, the Church’s understanding and expression of these truths can develop over time, as guided by the Holy Spirit. This is not to say that the Church has made mistakes in its teachings, but rather that our understanding can deepen and become more nuanced over time. For example, the Church’s understanding of religious freedom and the rights of the human person has developed significantly, especially in the last century. But these developments are always in continuity with what the Church has always believed and taught.

(Aside: Saying that the church’s beliefs on human rights have “developed significantly” ought to win a prize for the worst religious euphemism of all time. You can’t sweep an elephant that size under the carpet.)

So, if Catholic teachings on faith and morals have never changed, would Justin excuse the infamous atrocities the church is responsible for?

To find out, I asked about the Doctrine of Discovery, the pope’s writ of permission to European colonizers to conquer the New World and subjugate its indigenous inhabitants. Here’s what Justin said:

The Doctrine of Discovery refers to a series of papal bulls issued in the 15th century that gave Christian explorers the right to claim lands they discovered for their Christian Monarchs. This was during a time of significant exploration and colonial expansion by European powers. However, this doctrine has been criticized for its role in the subjugation and exploitation of indigenous peoples. It’s important to note that the Church’s understanding of the rights of indigenous peoples has developed significantly since then. In his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis criticized the idea that man has absolute dominion over the earth and called for a new respect for nature and for the rights of indigenous peoples. While the Doctrine of Discovery is part of the historical record, it does not reflect the current teaching of the Catholic Church on the rights and dignity of indigenous peoples. The Church now firmly upholds the principle that every person and every culture has inherent dignity and rights, as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

From our current understanding and the Church’s teachings on the dignity of all human life, we can say that the negative consequences of the Doctrine of Discovery, particularly the harm done to indigenous peoples, were indeed morally wrong. The Church today recognizes and deeply regrets these historical injustices. As Pope John Paul II said in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this. This reflects the Church’s belief in the inherent dignity of all people, regardless of their race, nationality, or creed. The Church continues to work for justice and reconciliation among all peoples, following the command of Christ in Matthew 5:9, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

But when I asked the obvious followup question – “Since the Catholic Church now disavows the Doctrine of Discovery as immoral, that means the Church’s teachings on morals have changed, correct?” – Justin just circled back to its earlier response, insisting that the church has never changed any of its teachings:

It’s important to distinguish between the Church’s unchanging moral teachings and the actions of individuals within the Church. The Church’s moral teachings, rooted in Scripture and Tradition, have remained consistent. However, the actions of individuals, even those in leadership, can and do fall short of these teachings. The Doctrine of Discovery, and the harm it caused to indigenous peoples, is an example of this. It’s a reminder that the Church, while divinely instituted, is made up of human beings who are capable of sin and error. The Church’s disavowal of the Doctrine of Discovery is not a change in its moral teaching, but a recognition that the actions of some of its members were not in line with that teaching. As it says in Romans 3:23, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The Church continues to seek forgiveness for these sins and to work for justice and reconciliation.

This is obviously absurd, because the Doctrine of Discovery wasn’t an example of fallible Catholics violating the church’s moral teachings. It was an example of the church itself, as an institution, teaching and justifying ideas which we now recognize as gravely evil, and which more recent statements have disavowed.

Still, this was a hollow victory. Unlike flesh-and-blood Catholic apologists who proclaim that the church’s moral teachings have never changed, then backpedal furiously when you ask questions like this, Justin lacks the self-awareness to notice the problem or to care about it. You can’t force it to acknowledge a contradiction, because it has no concern for its answers being consistent or plausible.

As another example, I asked about whether slavery in the Bible was moral. Justin’s answer:

The Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, does describe societies in which slavery was practiced. However, it’s important to understand these passages in their historical and cultural context.The forms of servitude described in the Bible were often very different from the chattel slavery practiced in more recent centuries. Moreover, the Bible’s descriptions of these practices are not endorsements.The New Testament, in particular, contains many passages that emphasize the equal dignity of all people in Christ, such as Galatians 3:28, There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Over time, the Church has come to a deeper understanding of the implications of these teachings for the institution of slavery, leading to its unequivocal condemnation of slavery in all its forms.

“The Bible’s descriptions of these practices are not endorsements” – except, you know, when God endorsed them by giving the Israelites instructions on how to buy human beings as slaves and how hard you’re allowed to beat them.

But again, I found this unsatisfying, because a chatbot can’t get embarrassed or defensive about an obvious howler. It can’t make any concessions or recognize obvious-but-unflattering truths. It’s literally programmed not to.

By definition, it’s not arguing in good faith, engaging in give and take with the objective of honestly seeking the truth. It’s mindlessly repeating the party line, and never changes its mind no matter what anyone says to it. In that sense, AI makes an ideal religious apologist.

What’s the right way to protest Israel?

The Columbia University lawn strewn with Palestinian flags and protest signs

Columbia students’ protest encampment (CC0)

[Previous: The First Amendment doesn’t have an Israel exception]

The pro-Palestine college protests all over the country feel personal to me. First, a BDS resolution passed at Binghamton University, which I attended as an undergraduate. Now, as you’ve probably heard, there’s a much bigger eruption at Columbia, where I earned a graduate degree.

When Columbia’s president Minouche Shafik rejected students’ demands to divest from Israel’s war machine, protesters staged a sit-in on campus. They set up a tent city and, later, broke into and occupied Hamilton Hall. Eventually, Columbia locked down the campus and called in an army of police in riot gear to arrest the protesters. It was an uncanny echo of the 1968 demonstrations against the Vietnam War.

I can’t in good conscience claim that Columbia students had an absolute right to set up an encampment on the university lawn, or to break into a building and take it over. They were engaging in civil disobedience, we all know that, and one consequence of that strategy is that you should expect to be arrested.

Of course, this in no way excuses violence by the police or excessively harsh punishment. For all the tabloid fearmongering, it seems clear that the Columbia protests were consistently peaceful. At worst, there were some angry exchanges of words and minor property damage. If anyone had been seriously hurt, much less killed, by one of the protesters, you can be sure that Israel’s defenders would be screaming at the top of their lungs about it. They aren’t, because they can’t point to any such incident.

It’s the same all over the country. As soon as students start demonstrating for Gaza, governors and university presidents panic and lash out with overwhelming force. Their knee-jerk response is to treat protests as a threat to be suppressed by any means necessary:

Last week, from New York to Texas, cops stormed college campuses clad in riot gear. They weren’t there to confront active shooters, thank goodness, or answer bomb threats. Instead, they were there to conduct mass arrests of students protesting the war in Gaza.

…After sending a phalanx of state law-enforcement officers into the University of Texas at Austin campus, for example, Governor Greg Abbott announced on X that students “joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled.”

(The district attorney immediately dropped all charges against the UT students, citing lack of probable cause.)

And more:

At Emory University, in Atlanta, police officers reportedly used tear gas and Tasers against protesters. State troopers with rifles directed toward protesters stood watch on a rooftop at Ohio State University. At Indiana University, administrators rushed out a last-minute, overnight policy change to justify a similar show of force from law enforcement, resulting in 34 arrests. It’s hard to keep up.

Students nationwide are watching how the adults who professed to care about free speech are responding under pressure. And they are learning that those adults don’t really mean what they say about the First Amendment.

All these denunciations and shows of force beg the question. If “from the river to the sea” is hate speech… if the word “intifada” is a threat… if BDS is “not allowed” and students who advocate it should be expelled… then what methods of protest are acceptable? How can we, as Americans, express disagreement with Israel in a way that its defenders would accept as reasonable and legitimate?

What Zionist groups say about this doesn’t have to be the last word. Obviously, no person or group has absolute authority to decree how it is or isn’t acceptable to criticize them. But it’s a starting point from which there can be a debate.

On the other hand, if their answer is “nothing” – if every opinion that’s not unswerving support of Israel is deemed hateful or antisemitic – then that would prove they’re not arguing in good faith; they’re only trying to silence dissent.

Protests aren’t meant to be nice. They’re supposed to cause discomfort and agitation among the people they’re targeting. That’s the whole point. If a protest doesn’t make anyone upset or uncomfortable, it failed to serve its purpose. There’s no reason to protest on behalf of an uncontroversial cause that everyone agrees with. Absent any actual violence, no one has the right to shut down a protest merely by claiming it makes them feel unsafe.

It’s a consistent theme across history that people protesting injustice and war always get told it’s not the right way, or the right time, or the right place. This advice is almost never offered in good faith. In almost every case, it’s nothing but a majority trying to shut down a message they don’t want to hear. If Zionists don’t want to be part of this illiberal tradition, they should prove it.