Political Flavors

Some thoughts on the UUA Common Read: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Posted in Book Reviews, Editorials on May 23rd, 2016

Last week, I co-led a service at my UU Congregation about this year’s UUA Common Read, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Here’s what I had to say:

In 2005, the UU General Assembly passed a Statement of conscience, which reads in part:

As Unitarian Universalists, we are committed to affirming the inherent goodness and worth of each of us. As Americans, we take pride in our constitutional promise of liberty, equality, and justice for all, including those who have violated the law. Yet the incarceration rate in the United States is five- to tenfold that of other nations, even those without such a constitutional promise. Our corrections system is increasingly rife with inequitable sentencing, longer terms of detention, racial and ethnic profiling, and deplorable jail and prison conditions and treatment. The magnitude of injustice and inequity in this system stands in stark contrast to the values that our nation—and our faith—proclaim. We are compelled to witness this dissonance between what America proclaims for criminal justice and what America practices. We offer an alternative moral vision of a justice system that operates in harmonious accord with our values as a community of faith. This vision includes the presumption of innocence, fair judicial proceedings, the merciful restoration of those who have broken the law, the renunciation of torture and other abusive practices, and a fundamental commitment to the dignity and humane treatment of everyone in our society, including prisoners.

Although Americans take great pride in the freedoms we espouse, the American prison system violates basic human rights in many ways. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United States endorsed in 1948, states in Article 5, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” American correctional practice often subjects inmates to abusive treatment, such as torture and rape, and neglects basic human needs such as health care and nutrition. Some suspects are detained without charge, legal counsel, or access to family. While indigent defendants have exactly the same rights to competent counsel as non-indigent defendants, in many states indigent defendants are not provided equality of representation.

The American penchant for retribution squanders opportunities for redemption, rehabilitation, and restoration of the individual offender. Failures in the criminal justice system have created a disenfranchised, stigmatized class who are predominantly from lower-income backgrounds, poorly educated, or from racial and ethnic minorities. The punishment for crime is often simply separation from society, and the sentence one serves is the punishment. In our penal system, punishment often continues even after those convicted have completed their sentence. They are often stripped of voting rights, denied social services, and barred from many professions. If convicted of a drug crime, they become ineligible for federal student loans to attend college. Our criminal justice system makes it exceedingly difficult for anyone to reintegrate into society. People returning to their communities find that they lack opportunity, skills, and social services to fully function in society and hold down jobs, maintain families, or participate in their communities. Therefore, an unacceptable percentage of those released from our prisons and jails recidivate.

Not all prisoners who enter the system leave. One of the most shameful aspects of our current criminal justice system is the death penalty. Many countries have abandoned the practice of capital punishment. Studies fail to demonstrate that the death penalty actually deters crime. While the United States Supreme Court has ruled against the execution of juvenile offenders, the death penalty is still legal in the United States. Experience shows that judges and juries wrongly convict defendants. Given the number of death row inmates released on account of innocence, it is highly likely that we have executed innocent people and will do so again in the future unless we abolish the death penalty.

The first two Principles of Unitarian Universalism address the inherent worth and dignity of every person and justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. Consistent with these fundamental principles, a new corrections policy must place a primary emphasis on community alternatives.

Appalled by the gross injustices in our current criminal justice system, we the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association commit ourselves to working in our communities to reform the criminal justice and correctional systems and effect justice for both victims and violators. We act in the spirit that we are indeed our sisters’ and our brothers’ keepers. Love is our governing principle in all human relationships. Therefore, that we may speak with one voice in unity, though not uniformity, we commit ourselves, our congregations to make good on our Unitarian Universalist heritage and our American promise to be both compassionate and just to all in our society. Through our diligence and perseverance in realizing this promise, we can live the core values of our country and extend the values of our faith to the benefit of others.

And so with this in mind, it is easy to understand why the UUA chose “Just Mercy” as the common read for this congregational year. The book, by Bryan Stevenson chronicles his career as an attorney working to for people on death row, mostly in Georgia and Alabama who have no other access to representation. He built the Equal Justice Initiative which litigates on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged with violent crimes, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct. EJI works with communities that have been marginalized by poverty and discouraged by unequal treatment.

Just Mercy’s main thread follows the story of Walter McMillian, a man wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death on scant evidence, false testimony and racist rumors. And while his story is compelling, Stevenson puts it in context of the criminal justice system we have today. It’s clear that his work isn’t just about one person. It’s to address the ongoing crisis of our broken criminal justice system.

I was left in awe and amazement at the tenacity and patience of Bryan Stevenson. I am so astounded by people who can spend their whole lives fighting an uphill battle. The book is not about him and gives few details about his personal life. He is very modest about his many great accomplishments in fact. And this perspective of humility and hope frame the book.

Something I keep coming back to when I think about the death penalty is that I, like everyone else, am a fallible human being subject to amoral impulses. There is an anecdote in the book about about a man who was the victim of abuse as a child and was suffering from PTSD after serving in Vietnam. After returning to the United States, he tried to win back an ex girlfriend by PUTTING A BOMB on her porch. In his distorted mind, he would save her from the bomb, and win back her love. But that didn’t happen. It went off, killed a young girl and maimed another in the process. It was and is very hard for me to feel sorry for him. But I think that’s exactly why we need to be careful in how we adjudicate these crimes. Our emotions cloud our judgement. In my outrage over his crime I do not care about the mitigating circumstances of this man’s victimization as a small, helpless child or the mental illness he could not avoid after his country drafted him and sent him to fight in a war. But Stevenson included this story in the book to show how brutal the death penalty is. The chapter details the visceral horror of the electric chair, which this man was put to death in. And even though somewhere in my heart I want vengeance for his victims, I know that his execution did nothing to help them. In fact, the surviving girl’s family approached Stevenson and asked him for help. They told him that putting someone else to death would not heal her. And I do feel some dissonance that we, to quote and old slogan kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong.

Although I know this book was meant to expose the injustice of our current system, I was also left with the gladness that people like Bryan Stevenson exist. His optimism and his accomplishments are an inspiration.

Feminist Coffee Hour Podcast Episode 10: Women In Tech

Posted in Podcast Episodes on May 12th, 2016

Episode Ten: Women in Tech

Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes

Listen to episode in browser/Right click to download file

Discussed in this episode:

We interview Iris Zhang (@iridesent) and talk about Women in Tech.

The Grace Hopper Conference

Girls Who Code

Society of Women Engineers (SWE)

Columbia University Women In Computer Science (WiCS)


Our theme song is composed by Bridget Ellsworth, check out her sound cloud page!

We’ve joined the Apple affiliate program. If you’re going to sign up for Apple Music, please do so by using this link.

I have 5 sex questions for Ted Cruz

Posted in Editorials on April 13th, 2016

As David Corn writes in Mother Jones,

In 2004, companies that owned Austin stores selling sex toys and a retail distributor of such products challenged a Texas law outlawing the sale and promotion of supposedly obscene devices. Under the law, a person who violated the statute could go to jail for up to two years. At the time, only three states—Mississippi, Alabama, and Virginia—had similar laws. (The previous year, a Texas mother who was a sales rep for Passion Parties was arrested by two undercover cops for selling vibrators and other sex-related goods at a gathering akin to a Tupperware party for sex toys. No doubt, this had worried businesses peddling such wares.) The plaintiffs in the sex-device case contended the state law violated the right to privacy under the 14th Amendment. They argued that many people in Texas used sexual devices as an aspect of their sexual experiences. They claimed that in some instances one partner in a couple might be physically unable to engage in intercourse or have a contagious disease (such as HIV) and that in these cases such devices could allow a couple to engage in safe sex.

But a federal judge sent them packing, ruling that selling sex toys was not protected by the Constitution. The plaintiffs appealed, and Cruz’s solicitor general office had the task of preserving the law

Sound familiar? You might have seen this video about the law featuring the late Molly Ivins:

Continuing from Corn’s Mother Jones Article,

Cruz’s legal team asserted that “obscene devices do not implicate any liberty interest.” And its brief added that “any alleged right associated with obscene devices” is not “deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions.”

Question 1: Has Ted Cruz ever heard of Ben Franklin?

The brief insisted that Texas in order to protect “public morals” had “police-power interests” in “discouraging prurient interests in sexual gratification, combating the commercial sale of sex, and protecting minors.” There was a “government” interest, it maintained, in “discouraging…autonomous sex.”

Question 2: Would a Cruz administration pursue this interest in masturbation police? How?

Question 3: Is there a government interest in discouraging maturbation if you do it with a partner? (Or partners?)

In perhaps the most noticeable line of the brief, Cruz’s office declared, “There is no substantive-due-process right to stimulate one’s genitals for non-medical purposes unrelated to procreation or outside of an interpersonal relationship.” That is, the pursuit of such happiness had no constitutional standing. And the brief argued there was no “right to promote dildos, vibrators, and other obscene devices.”

Question 4: What counts as an obscene device? Lingerie? Silk Scarves? Feathers? Ice Cubes? Flavored Condoms? Please provide a robust and discreet definition.

Question 5: Can you use obscene devices during procreative sex? In the Catholic Church, it’s all good as long as the penis ends up depositing semen into the vagina. Would that be a policy you would be willing to pursue?

If you are going to be at a Ted Cruz event any time in the near future, please ask him one of these questions! You don’t even have to credit me. Just send me a tweet and let me know what he says.

Feminist Coffee Hour Podcast Episode Nine: Clinton vs Sanders

Posted in Podcast Episodes on March 24th, 2016

Episode Nine: Clinton vs Sanders

Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes

Listen to episode in browser/Right click to download file

Discussed in this episode:

Are feminists obligated to vote for Hillary Clinton? Is Bernie Sanders a feminist? What are the strongest cases for and against each candidate from a feminist point of view?

Is Juanita Broaddrick Telling the Truth?

Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote

The Men Who Hate Hillary


Help us raise money for this year’s New York Abortion Access Bowl A Thon! Donate here.

Our theme song is composed by Bridget Ellsworth, check out her sound cloud page!

We’ve joined the Apple affiliate program. If you’re going to sign up for Apple Music, please do so by using this link.

Donald Trump’s Butler Is A Sexist Clown

Posted in Editorials on March 15th, 2016

Today the New York Times ran a profile of Anthony Senecal, Donald Trump’s personal butler at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. It’s clearly a puff piece and I’m sure every word was vetted by the Trump campaign. What’s telling is that he thinks this makes him look good. Among the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” minutiae and Senecal’s secrets for pumping Trump’s ego we get a clear picture of the misogynist assistant behind the presidential candidate. Compare his descriptions of Trump’s father and ex-wife.

He recalled how Mr. Trump’s father, Fred C. Trump, once stepped out of his limo on the club’s gravel driveway and remarked to Mr. Senecal, “Somebody better get that coin.” The butler went on his hands and knees and after a few minutes found a crusty penny.
“His eyes were incredible,” Mr. Senecal said of Fred Trump. “Mr. Trump has the same eyes.”


Mr. Senecal adored the Trump children, but found Ivana, Mr. Trump’s first wife, an especially demanding presence. She would instruct him to “get that spot out of that rug” and then do it herself if he failed. She would occasionally tell Mr. Senecal to have the gardeners go inside because she wanted to swim naked in the pool.

To recap – getting down on your hands and knees in gravel to search for a penny – “incredible.” Wanting a clean rug and privacy in your own home – “especially demanding.” Got it.

Then there was this charming tidbit:

In the interview, he offered a profane description for Mrs. Clinton, the front-runner in the Democratic presidential race.

I’m assuming he meant a cunt? The NYT isn’t so squeamish they wouldn’t print the word “bitch” is it?

I didn’t even mention the part about how Senecal used his term as mayor of a town in West Virginia to harass, criminalize and humiliate homeless people. It’s no wonder Trump has kept him on staff for so long.

So, do you remember in 2004 when the NYT did a similar piece about how John Kerry’s limo driver made him peanut butter sandwiches? And everyone lost their mind? When is that happening? Any minute now?

On International Women’s Day, Some Things I Think You Should Know

Posted in Editorials on March 7th, 2016

This post is modified from a UU service I led about International Women’s Day.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day in the United States, there are some things I think you should know.

On International Women’s Day, one of the top internet searches is “International Men’s Day.” If you didn’t know, International Men’s day is in November. But people only search for it in March when we celebrate International Women’s Day. On Twitter, 40% of all tweets about International Men’s Day occur on – International Women’s Day. For some reason, many people are deeply uncomfortable with the existence of this holiday, even though it has been around for over 100 years.

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights created the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice in 2011 to identify good practices related to the elimination of laws that discriminate against women. In December of 2015, the group issued a report on the status of women in the United States. The group sent a three person delegation to investigate for 10 days in Washington DC, Alabama, Oregon and Texas. Some of their key findings:

- The United States has not yet ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All of Forms of Discrimination Against Women or CEDAW, and is one of only seven countries to have failed to do so.

Not listed in the UN Report, but a fact familiar to me from my own following of this issue, is that opposition to CEDAW stems largely from the Christian right who objects to the fact that many countries who have ratified the treaty have gone on to legalize abortion or liberalize their abortion laws. Abortion is legal in the United States, at least nominally so and last year at our General Assembly, Unitarian Universalists passed a statement of conscience supporting Reproductive Justice. However, the World Congress of Families on the other hand is vocal and active in opposing US ratification of CEDAW because they fear it would hamper their efforts to make abortion illegal in the United States.

Moving on, the UN working group noted that”

Women hold 19.4% of Congressional seats and 24.9% of seats in state legislatures. This ranks us 72nd in the world in terms of women’s representation in government.

Not only do we have a lack of representation of women in government, some women cannot vote at all.

“changes in voter identification laws which increase bureaucratic requirements for voter identification, in particular are problematic for women who change their name in marriage. And policies which reduce the number of voting centers can make registration and voting less accessible for the poor, of whom a majority are women.”

Side note, for more information about Unitarian Universalists working to restore the Voting Rights act, look up the James Reeb Project.

The report continues,

“we are shocked by the lack of mandatory standards for workplace accommodation for pregnant women, post-natal mothers and persons with care responsibilities, which are required in international human rights law. The US is one of only two countries in the world without a mandatory paid maternity leave for all women workers. The Group regards it as vital that 14 weeks paid maternity leave for pregnancy, birth, and post natal related needs be guaranteed for all women workers in public and private employment and advises that best practice is payment from a social security fund which does not impose the direct burden on employers.

“In the United States, the wage gap is 21%, affecting women’s income throughout their lives, and increasing women’s poverty in old age. During the last decade little improvement has been made in closing it. Education increases women’s earnings but does not eliminate the gap, which is in fact largest for those with the highest levels of educational attainment. Women’s earnings differ considerably by ethnicity: Afro-American, Native American and Hispanic women have the lowest earnings.”

“Women own over one third of US firms, mainly in small and medium size businesses. However, the Small Businesses Administration has a stated goal of awarding only 5% of federal contracts to women-owned businesses. This goal has never been reached.”

In the United States, maternal mortality has increased by 136% between 1990 and 2013. These numbers also hide distressing ethnic and socio-economic disparities. Afro-American women are nearly four times more at risk to die in childbirth. States with high poverty rates have a 77% higher maternal mortality rate.

The working group acknowledges the significant efforts deployed at the legislative and institutional levels to lower the prevalence of violence against women. However, they share the concerns on the alarming high rates of violence against Native-American women. We also share the concerns regarding the fatal consequences for women of lack of gun control, in particular in cases of domestic violence. Our group also deplores police brutality and the increased number of homicides of Afro-American women by the police. Our attention was also drawn to numerous cases of violence against LBTQ women, including homicides.

I suggest you read the whole report, which elaborates on the points above and also discusses gender disparities in poverty, access to health care and reproductive justice in further detail.

The last thing I think you should know as we plan to celebrate International Women’s Day in the United States is that the Department of the Treasury has announced last year that they will soon put a women on our $10 dollar bill. This was met mostly with approval and in that sense, we are doing better than our allies across the pond. In the United Kingdom, British feminist Caroline Criado-Perez advocated for putting a woman on their 10 pound note. Jane Austen was selected. However, during her campaign, Criado-Perez was subject to relentless threats of violence that went on for days. At one point during the frenzy of hate filled messages, she counted fifty men threatening to rape her in a single hour. Now I’m not saying that American feminists are never treated this way. For example, political analyst and writer Zerlina Maxwell was treated similarly when she suggested that teenagers be instructed about sexual ethics and consent as to reduce incident of sexual assault. She also received rape threats for days on end. However, no one has subject our Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew to such abuse when he announced that there would be a woman on the American $10. Good job, America!

So who will be the woman we put on the $10? My top three picks are Emma Lazarus, Rachel Carson, and Rosa Parks.

Writing in a op-ed for the New York Times, Linda Chavez wrote:

Emma Lazarus is my nominee to be the first woman on U.S. currency. Lazarus’ words, inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, have come to symbolize America as a nation of immigrants. She was no immigrant herself, having been born into a prominent New York family whose Sephardic Jewish ancestors traced their roots back to colonial times. Nonetheless, she managed to capture the unique aspects of American immigration. What other country in the world has welcomed so many people from across the globe and given them the opportunity to rise as high as their talents and hard work would take them? Most important, the United States confers on immigrants an equal claim to consider themselves Americans as those born here.

Lazarus’ words are a profound statement of American Exceptionalism. They remind us of who we are and where we come from:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

And they remind us, too, of what we’re capable of doing: Turning those tired, poor, huddled masses into Americans. At a time when immigration once again roils American politics, putting Emma Lazarus’ on the bill would be a fitting tribute not only to women but to these principles.

Rachel Carson

Rachel Louise Carson was an American marine biologist and writer. During her career working for the US Bureau of Fisheries she began to notice the harmful impact that pesticides, especially DDT had on wildlife. She was concerned as early as the mid 1940′s and gathered evidence for many years. In 1962, she published her second book, Silent Spring which documented the harms of pesticides ranging from damage to fish and wildlife to impacts on human health, and as suggested by the title – the extinction of several species of birds. Although the book was reviewed by other scientific experts at the time, Carson immediately faced harsh criticism from chemical companies like DuPont. Others accused her of being a communist. However her work was very influential and inspired the passage of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act – a law which many of us owe the safety of our drinking water, seafood and environment to today. She is credited by many to be the mother of the modern environmental movement, using science as the basis for a change in policy. Although she died of breast cancer in 1964, Carson was posthumously awarded the presidential medal of freedom by Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Rosa Parks

Many Americans know the story of Rosa Parks and her role in kicking off the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. But history has sanitized her legacy and there is so much more to her that we should learn. Rosa Parks organized local chapters of the NAACP at a time when the organization was outlawed. She helped black women who were victims of sexual assault, most notably Recy Taylor who was raped by a group of white men in 1944. Parks led the effort calling for a criminal investigation and justice long before the Second Wave of feminism or Take Back the night rallies when feminists fought to bring the unspeakable out into the light. She helped campaign for John Conyers when he was first starting out in politics and worked in his Detroit office until she retired in 1988. Parks was friends with Malcom X, believing that the Civil Rights Movement needed all kinds of people involved – from church leaders to radical activists. It saddens me that when I was in school I was taught Rosa Parks was just a lady who was tired on a bus and not the tireless and influential force for Civil Rights that she actually was. If you want to learn more, I strongly recommend the book “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.

So, now that you know my picks, which American woman do you think should be on the $10?

See Also – Feminist Coffee Hour: Women on the $10

Feminist Coffee Hour Episode Eight: Rebecca Lynch and Millennial Women In Politics

Posted in Editorials, Podcast Episodes on March 3rd, 2016

Episode Eight: Rebecca Lynch and Millennial Women In Politics

Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes

Listen to episode in browser/Right click to download file

Discussed in this episode:

We discuss the need for more women in American politics, especially young women and interview former NYC City Council candidate Rebecca Lynch.

There’s a bit of a jump cut about 3/4 of the way in. It’s not you, it’s us. We had a tech problem.

Women candidates need to step up to the plate

Rebecca discusses insufficient outreach to women candidates with the National Women’s Political Caucus NYC Chapter


Help us raise money for this year’s New York Abortion Access Bowl A Thon! Donate here.

Our theme song is composed by Bridget Ellsworth, check out her sound cloud page!

We’ve joined the Apple affiliate program. If you’re going to sign up for Apple Music, please do so by using this link.

Feminist Coffee Hour Episode Seven – Valentine’s Day Special: Your Heartthrob Is Problematic

Posted in Podcast Episodes on February 12th, 2016

Episode seven – Valentine’s Day Special: Your Heartthrob Is Problematic

Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes

Listen to episode in browser/Right click to download file

Discussed in this episode:

We talk about our favorite fictional characters and which ones would make the best Valentines, and which ones are just too problematic to waste another swoon on.

Spoiler Alerts for: The Great Gatsby, Buffy The Vampire Slayer/Angel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Thor, Star Trek Voyager, Adventure Time, Doctor Who, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Jessica Jones.

If you want to send us a Valentine, help us raise money for this year’s New York Abortion Access Bowl A Thon! Donate here.

Our theme song is composed by Bridget Ellsworth, check out her sound cloud page!

We’ve joined the Apple affiliate program. If you’re going to sign up for Apple Music, please do so by using this link.

Feminist Coffee Hour Joins #Bowl16!

Posted in Podcast Episodes on February 10th, 2016

This year Karen and I are signing up for our FOURTH bowl-a-thon fundraiser to support the New York Abortion Access Fund. In case you missed our interview with Alison Turkos, you can check it out here.

Reproductive justice is important to us and no one should be denied access to care because of their economic status.

If you want to donate, please do so here.
Please donate whatever you can. Even $5 can make a BIG difference.

#NotBuyingIt 2016 – Misogynist Trolls Tell Me Kissing Is Bad

Posted in Editorials on February 8th, 2016

So I had a very successful tweet last night:

The #NotBuyingIt hashtag was started in 2012 by the Representation Project as a way to call out sexist commercials during the Superbowl. It’s since continued, growing every year. And I believe this year we have reached a threshold, because to my dismay the #NotBuying hashtag was overrun with trolls to the point where it was mostly sexist bullying and trolling rather than media criticism. I am STILL getting angry responses to the above tweet over 15 hours later. How long will people be butt hurt? Start an over/under betting pool in the comments.

I’ve been on the internet long enough to expect trolls. What I am surprised about (and maybe I shouldn’t be) is that so many people will watch this ad and think “Yes! *That’s* responsible fatherhood.” And not “I feel sorry for that girl.”

The “over protective father being played for comedy meme” is pervasive in our culture as this ad shows. And it’s incredibly sexist, perpetuating ideas of women as property and alienating teenage girls them from a healthy relationship with their own fathers and boys their own age.

What gets me is they hypocrisy of at least some of my detractors. It seems like I got two flavors – general MRA and Christian Patriarchy. The MRAs are giant hypocrites on this one. Men who sling around “incel” and “kissless virgin” as fates worse than death are excited by a commercial where a Dad constantly prevents his daughter from kissing her suitor. This seems counter productive. Unless they really do think that kissing is bad. If that’s the case, then a change of rhetoric is needed. Stop pretending a lack of intimate contact is a bad thing. Isn’t it a badge of honor that you didn’t sully some young woman with your filthy mouth?

As for the Christian Patriarchy types, I suppose that it’s exciting to see a famous comedian and a major corporation expressing their worldview on such a big platform. But they dropped the ball when they started annoying people on Twitter. No one has ever changed religions because some stranger disagreed with their tweet. Maybe take out your own ad next time. It’s what the Scientologists did.