Monday, December 30, 2002

What she said

Arianna mouths off about a big pet peeve of mine: the ubiquitous apostrophe. What really gets Arianna going is the use of apostrophes to render the plural of acronyms or abbreviations ("C.E.O.'s", for example). The sin that drives me crazy is "it's." I see this in briefs and even in judicial opinions all the time. Not only is it unprofessional for people who write for a living (lawyers and journalists) to make such an obvious error, but it's such an easy error to avoid. Here's the rule folks: Always use "its" (no apostrophe) in formal writing. "It's" is a contraction, meaning "it is" (It's a gorgeous day) or (less often) "it has" (It's been lovely chatting with you). Contractions are not proper in formal writing, unless they are a direct quotation of speech. Use your word processor's "find and replace" function to make a global change in all your documents. It's that simple.

Before I read Arianna's column, I thought I was alone in my frustration. Brava, Arianna.
Another Brick in the Wall
The lead editorial in this morning's New York Times finally takes President Bush to task for Executive Order 13279, disingenuously styled Equal Protection of the Laws for Faith-Based and Community Organizations. The courts and law reviews will be busy with this insidious ukase (and the larger crusade of which it is but a part), for quite a while (and yours truly will, I hope, have a hand in the work). But a little blogging is in order.

Let's start with the title. The choice of the equal protection language is politically astute (imagine the affirmatives from the Jaywalk All Stars on the push poll question: "Do you favor President Bush's efforts to provide equal protection of the laws to faith-based organizations?" Who could say no?). But to issue an Executive Order to assure faith-based organizations equal protection of the laws is a curious thing indeed. One would think that to the extent that faith-based organizations have a right to the equal protection of the laws, the Constitution itself ought to protect that right sufficiently. Are faith-based organizations currently being denied the equal protection of the laws? How? Are the courts in on the conspiracy?

Indeed, one might plausibly argue that faith-based organizations get better than equal protection of (at least some of) the laws. They are the beneficiaries of annual wealth transfers in the billions of dollars, in the form of property and income tax exemptions. Just think about what might happen to your real-estate taxes should churches, mosques and synagogues have to pay them. Compared to you and me, the protection of faith-based organizations from the revenue laws seems pretty damn equal! (Note: I don't for a minute suggest that these exemptions ought to be eliminated).

But EO 13279 has nothing to do with providing "equal protection" to faith-based organizations. It is, quite simply, an order to federal agencies to cut checks to churches: "No organization shall be discriminated against on the basis of religion or religious belief in the administration or distribution of Federal financial assistance under social service programs." (sec. 2(c)). The EO, to be sure, makes nods in the direction of separating religious indoctrination from federal funding. It requires that a faith-based organization receiving federal funding conduct "inherently religious activities such as worship, religious instruction, and proselytization" in a separate time and location from programs receiving federal funding (sec. 2(e)), and must not use federal funding to support those activities (sec. 2(f)). Now that division is well and good, it seems, except for two policing problems: Who? and How? First, the who: a government ombudsman? (or better yet,a corps of them? another group of bureaucrats? auditing our churches, monitoring their activities? Thank you no.) Second, how? Money is fungible. Woe betide the auditor who's going to try to enforce this kind of segregation. The EO specifically allows the churches to use their facilities to provide the programming the government is funding. Which means, presumably, that a portion of the church's mortgage is going to be an expense that can be charged back to the government program. Of course, what that means is that the government (that's you and me, folks) inevitably is paying for the upkeep of churches. No thank you. And the bigger problem: what's an an inherently religious activity? To an observant Jew, the easier question might be "what isn't?" I for one don't want the government going anywhere near that question, let alone answering it.

This is fertile ground for further inquiry (including the question I've begged above, about the principled distinction between tax exemptions and outright grants), but time is fleeting.

A Happy and Healthy 2003 to all, should I not post again before tomorrow evening.

Friday, December 27, 2002

Tortured Logic
The Washington Post reported yesterday that the U.S. may be torturing detainees in the war on terrorism. That is a serious allegation, and there should be a serious debate about whether and in what circumstances torture is justifiable. Human Rights Watch predictably takes the position in a letter to President Bush that "[t]orture is never permissible against anyone, whether in times of peace or of war." Alan Dershowitz, on the other hand, argued recently in a "60 Minutes" segment, that such an absolute prohibition is neither desirable nor achievable. See The Dagger's comments on a related topic.

But what I find more fascinating than that general debate (in which I would agree with Dershowitz) is this "example" of torture from the Post article:

Sometimes, female officers conduct interrogations, a psychologically jarring experience for men reared in a conservative Muslim culture where women are never in control.

Now, dollars to donuts, those who would consider this torture are ardent feminists, yet this is the argument they make: We shouldn't let a woman interrogate a fanatical muslim because in his culture, women are not allowed to do such things. The mind boggles.

But let's take this logic out for a test drive to show how absurd it is: In the fanatical muslim's culture, there is no such thing as due process of law, and the prohibition against torture is routinely violated. A fanatical muslim would expect to be tortured by his captors, just as he would torture his enemies. Out of respect for those cultural norms, mustn't we torture the fanatical muslim in order not to "psychologically jar" him by treating him differently (albeit more humanely) than he would expect to be treated?

Perhaps I'm missing something profound about this horrible practice of using female intelligence officers. If so, please enlighten me.