The Debate Behind the Debate

The debate over Indiana’s version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has already taken some curious twists and turns.

The initial response from opponents was to go to the playbook that has been so wildly successful over the past five years—label the law as “hate,” condemn its proponents, create wild scenarios that conjure Nazi-esque horrors.

RFRAMapExcept something was different this time.  The law’s critics, probably overconfident because of their long winning streak, got a little sloppy.  Their blanket condemnations were met on this occasion by some defiant, salient points from the other side.  Namely, that numerous other states and the federal government have had similar laws for years, and, yet, somehow, those jurisdictions have avoided the descent into Jim-Crow-esque regimes promised as a certainty by opponents.

Faced with these inconvenient facts, RFRA critics have chosen two paths: One, taken by those like Apple’s Tim Cook, has been to ignore the realities of the application and history of these laws, and simply to continue to drum up opposition.  Even politicians are not immune to this phenomenon.  Now-Senator Chuck Schumer sponsored the original RFRA bill as a member of Congress, but condemned Indiana’s version this week.  Governor Dan Malloy of Connecticut issued a ban on state-funded travel to Indiana over the RFRA, but his own state actually has an RFRA with broader language in some respects than Indiana’s legislation.

The second path has been to distinguish the Indiana law from other RFRAs because of some slightly different procedural points that permit its use as a defense in actions between private parties, rather than simply those where the state is a party.  As noted by the Washington Post, this is a somewhat inconsequential distinction.  However, critics have to highlight this difference to avoid an embarrassing situation in which many “good” states have this law, and where, for example, people like Barack Obama (as a state legislator) voted for these measures.

The reality is that, if someone opposes the IN-RFRA on the grounds that it might someday allow a court to find a conservative Christian may be able to decline to service a gay wedding, then that opposition should extend to some of the other RFRAs as well.

All these laws do, in fact, is plug a hole created by Employment Division v. Smith, a 1990 Supreme Court case which—briefly—held that laws of general applicability need not receive the highest level of scrutiny used in certain other First Amendment cases.  The idea is that, if a law is simply a general one that happens to conflict with particular practices of a religion, it has a lower constitutional hurdle to clear than a law that specifically impacts religious practices.

The RFRA was an attempt to elevate such cases to the same strict-scrutiny standard that applies in cases involving direct infringement upon the free exercise of religion.  That standard doesn’t mean that the plaintiff always wins, it means that the government must prove that it is advancing a compelling state interest in order to justify its alleged infringement on religious exercise.

A later case, Boerne v. Flores, held that the federal RFRA could not be used in state-level cases.  That decision prompted a long list of states to adopt their own versions of the RFRA over the next several years.  The laws have been used in a variety of contexts to protect religious objectors who seek to be absolved from following certain laws that clash with their religious beliefs, such as a ban on facial hair in a prison, or regulations pertaining to wheeled conveyances that are in conflict with Amish religious and cultural traditions.

The Mother Jones and Gawker crowds would have you believe the RFRA is something close to apocalyptic, but a decade or two of actual experience with these laws strongly suggests otherwise.

So, what’s really going on, here?

This is part of a bigger cultural shift—one I’ve discussed in the past.

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The Most Transitional WrestleMania of All Time!

WrestleMania has always been a little different.

From its inception, when it was the only annual pay-per-view in the World Wrestling Federation’s arsenal, celebrity involvement was a point of emphasis.  From Liberace to Billy Martin to Muhammad Ali, the WWF packed the inaugural event with names intended to broaden the appeal of WrestleMania and reach outside pro wrestling’s core demographic.

WM31LogoThat tradition carried on beyond 1985, of course—to the point where the WWF/WWE created a separate “wing” of its not-physically-real Hall of Fame just for celebrity involvement.

But this desire to attract casual fans, former fans, and non-fans has manifested itself in a different way in recent years: I’m referring to the upswing of using non-full-time wrestlers in high-profile matches.

Sure, there has always been some of that.  Lawrence Taylor main-evented a WrestleMania, after all.  And Floyd Mayweather squared off against Big Show back at WrestleMania XXIV.

There are a few other examples where part-timers or “retired” wrestlers (always a slippery concept in this business) came back for a one-night-only match.  Generally, though, these were few and far-between.

Not anymore.

Unlike every other PPV the WWE puts on during the course of the year, latter-day WrestleManias have been consistently anchored by matches involving wrestlers who are not on the full-time active roster.  That trend seems to have reached its zenith this year.  Three of the biggest singles matches on the WrestleMania 31 card involve part-timers: Undertaker (vs. Bray Wyatt), Brock Lesnar (vs. Roman Reigns), and Sting vs. Triple H.

Undertaker has more or less been a once-a-year wrestler for a while now.  Per his unique contract, Lesnar appears a minimal number of times, sometimes disappearing for months.  The latter match (not to be confused with a ladder match) involves a guy who hasn’t wrestled in a year against a guy who has never wrestled in WWE.

There’s no question that WWE now treats the WrestleMania card as qualitatively different, not just quantitatively different, from the rest of its calendar.  It isn’t just a matter of WM being “bigger” than the others, or having a few added special attractions.  What has happened for the last few years is a step further.  The card is increasingly built around part-timers in an even more pronounced attempt to rope in fans who wouldn’t normally watch.

WrestleMania 27 had the Rock “hosting,” and the next two years had him in the main event.  WrestleMania 30 was originally supposed to have Batista in the spotlight before the “‘Yes!’ Movement” forced WWE to reconsider.  But WrestleMania 31 takes the role of part-timers even further.

That brings up a related point about this year’s show: Nearly every match involves an “old vs. new” component.  Surprisingly, I think old will prevail more often than not against new.

With that in mind, let’s take an in-depth look at WrestleMania 31 – The most transitional WrestleMania of all-time! Continue reading

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Let’s Talk About Oklahoma and Free Speech

UniversityOfOklahomaSealWith the news that University of Oklahoma President David Boren would be expelling two members of the SAE fraternity for singing a racial-slur-laden song, there has been an expected uptick in First Amendment experts in the comments sections of the news sites and social media outlets I frequent.

Eugene Volokh preemptively wrote a spot-on piece for the Washington Post about why Oklahoma may not expel these students (and then updated it a few hours later after the school, uh, expelled the students).  Volokh breaks down the legal reasoning perfectly, and I need not add anything to his thorough, big-picture argument.

Having said that, there are a few specific, recurring misconceptions I’ve seen crop up since the expulsion announcement.  I think these are worth addressing:

1. “The First Amendment only protects you from being prosecuted by the government, not from being expelled from a school.  The right to free speech is not a right not to get expelled.”

Huge problems here.  First, Oklahoma is a public (taxpayer-funded, state-run) university.  For First Amendment purposes, that makes it “the government.”  As a state actor, it is subject to the Constitution, including the requirement that it not violate the free-speech rights of its students.

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Timely Movie Review: Whiplash

(Obvious spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen Whiplash, don’t read any further)

I saw Birdman last week.  Interesting movie.  Michael Keaton was terrific.

I never need to see it again.

The first thing I did after watching Whiplash Monday night was to buy the blu-ray.

Whiplash01What makes Whiplash so superb is that it doesn’t take the stock, convenient approach to its characters—the approach that a lesser film might have taken.  A Whiplash in which J.K. Simmons’ Terence Fletcher is purely an evil, sadistic taskmaster and Miles Teller’s Andrew Nieman is simply the sympathetic underdog could have been a decent movie.  Forgettable, but decent.

The reason Whiplash is a great movie is that Nieman isn’t a one-dimensional, by-the-numbers protagonist.  He’s a warts-and-all, fledgling genius.  The audience roots for him early on because there’s an awkwardness about him as he tries to navigate life at the Shaffer Conservatory.  He also gains sympathy because of the abuse he takes from Dr. Fletcher.

Those sympathetic feelings are complicated when it becomes plain that Nieman can dish out abuse of his own. Continue reading

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Where Does It End?

This is an unsettling development . . .

CheeseWar

This is a sobering moment in the storied history of cheese-related conflict. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen escalation this frightening since the Razor Wars of a decade ago.

May heaven watch over us during this trying time.

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The Bargain

On this day, 37 years ago, I was born in Richmond, Virginia.  I grew up there and essentially lived there all my life.

In fact, up until last weekend, I was living in a house that sits less than a mile from the hospital in which the aforesaid blessed event occurred back in ’78.

SpringsteenGloryDaysAbout two months ago, I began commuting to Washington for a new job.  Something very odd happened that first week, during one of the three days I spent in DC.

I don’t know whether it was general stress, or just the permanence of the situation setting in, but I came back home with a ton of emotional baggage.

The immediate trigger was the harrowing realization that all of the prospective apartments I visited early on had rent twice as high as my current mortgage, yet—bonus—they also featured less than half the square footage boasted by my house.  These apartments looked like the places my friends rented immediately after college graduation, except they cost 200%-300% more.  Fantastic.

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Best of 2014

TheAxisOfEgoFacebookA new job and shifting responsibilities caused my blog-related productivity to slip a bit.  Overall, I published “only” 41 pieces in 2014, including this one.

But, that’s life.  This blog was always intended to be both an outlet for things about which I couldn’t write elsewhere and a means to an end: Improving my writing, and hopefully (occasionally) creating work that would catch someone’s attention.

I’m happy to say that that has happened over the last four years.  My writing duties for various outlets have expanded, which necessarily means that I’m not as prolific here as I once was.  That said, I do think that I produced some content in 2014 that’s worth revisiting as I close out the year.  And here it is . . .

The Tonight Show’s Forgotten Host (2/3): This was an interesting look at the fact that Jimmy Fallon’s introductory promos glossed over Ernie Kovacs, who hosted Tonight two nights per week for a time in the 1950s.  I found his omission from the canon curious, and explored it here.

Anti-Bullying / Anti-Free-Speech Redux (2/10):  My growing concerns over totalitarianism in the name of tolerance (or “totolertarianism” if you prefer) seemed more justified after this story out of South Carolina.

Five Tips for Paying Off Your Student Loans (3/14):  Student loan debt is one of the bigger financial problems handcuffing recently-graduated Millennials.  Thankfully, I’m here to provide insights on how I was able to pay off my undergraduate and graduate student loans in under a decade.  You’re welcome.

Go Cancel Yourself (3/28):  One of the better things I wrote all year, if not the best, and yet another plea for free speech in the face of language police.  This post was a direct response to the (thankfully futile, as it turned out) “#CancelColbert” movement by the Twitter pitchfork-and-torch crowd.  Probably my favorite post of 2014.  Or at least one of the longest. Continue reading

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On the Integrity of Cereal Naming Conventions

We do some pretty wacky things to try to shovel as much sugar into our collective diet as possible.

Take, for example, this new cereal.  Here’s a picture of the box, sent to me by a good friend who knew I would have some thoughts:

SugarCookieToastCrunch

Obviously, this is a seasonal offshoot of the most delicious breakfast cereal of all time, Cinnamon Toast Crunch.  You may also be familiar with the other members of the “Toast Crunch” family: Peanut-butter Toast Crunch and French Toast Crunch.

There is one key criteria that separates those cereals from the abomination you see pictured above.

There is such a thing as cinnamon toast.  There is certainly such a thing as French toast.  There is indubitably such a thing as peanut-butter toast.

There is no such thing as “sugar cookie toast.”

Sugar cookies exist.  Toast obviously exists.

Sugar cookie toast is a non-thing.

Now, you may be saying, “Don’t take this naming convention so literally, Tom!”  But where does it end?  Birthday Cake Toast Crunch?  Apple Pie Toast Crunch?  Refined Sugar and Corn Syrup Toast Crunch?  Juvenile Diabetes Toast Crunch?

And, yes, I would try any and all of those.  And I’m sure they would be delicious.  That’s not the point.

The point is that those of us in decent society – good, patriotic Americans everywhere – have to draw a line at some point.

And I draw that line at making up kinds of toast for the convenience of popular cereal brands.

It’s called a moral code, people.  There’s nothing more delicious than that.

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Thanks Again, Lawyers

I had occasion to rise at the crack of nine a few Sundays back, thanks to the unusual start time of the London-based NFL game between the Falcons and Lions.  The early wake-up was significant because it meant I would sit through the normal allotment of advertising during the game.  I rarely see many ads watching NFL football on Sunday thanks to the commercial-free Red Zone channel.

The 9:00 kickoff meant that Falcons / Lions was the only game on.  So, I happily endured the commercials, seeing them as a small price to pay for expanding my football Sunday by yet another three hours.

Much to my bemusement, one such commercial was a spot for Sony’s Playstation entitled “Friendly Competition.”  The premise is that two friends playing against one another in various video-game-related scenarios morph from one character to another as they compete across genres and titles.

It’s a pretty, well-made, and otherwise-harmless commercial that has one damning flaw.

PS4Ad01

You’ll note the fine print at the bottom saying “Dramatization.  Do not attempt.

You’ll also note the space-warrior riding futuristic, weaponized equipment.

To be clear, the thing they’re telling viewers not to attempt is to fly some kind of speeder bike that shoots lasers in an effort to combat an army of robots on an alien planet.  Definitely don’t do that, everybody!

Oh, and here’s what’s happening a couple of seconds later:

PS4Ad02

 

That’s right—the alien robot things are firing an unknown type of advanced weaponry at the aforementioned speeder bikes (that, again, you should not be riding into battle, dear consumers).  The bikes then explode (probably why you shouldn’t be riding them!), and the two friends simply decide to destroy the robots on foot.

My problem with this commercial is, of course, the annoyance of having to be told not to attempt something that is not only dangerous, not only impractical, but also literally impossible.

I shouldn’t even have to say this, but . . . there is no way that I—or anyone—could genuinely attempt to battle robots on a laser chopper because neither the robots nor the bikes exist.

Yet, companies feel the need to put these sorts of disclaimers on their advertisements because even impossible scenarios can spawn lawsuits from morons.  And, naturally, in our risk-averse, safety-first society, we must kowtow to the moron demographic.

To be fair, Sony appears to have revised the commercial so that the disclaimer appears during the segment where the duo rides conventional ATVs (which do exist here on Earth!).  Still, if we’re seeing these disclaimers for video game commercials, I’m wondering what the next frontier might be for such onscreen warnings.  Action movies?  Video games themselves?  WWE?  Oh, right, those already happen.

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Untimely Movie Review: An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain

The next two movies in the Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection are a pair of Gene Kelly musicals I’ll review in tandem: An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain.  These films present something of a dilemma for me as a “reviewer,” a term I use in the loosest sense allowable.

AnAmericanInParisPosterSpecifically, I don’t care for musicals.

Let’s see how this goes.

The 1951 winner for Best Picture, An American in Paris is the story of Jerry Mulligan (Kelly) persistently stalking and, it being 1951, therefore successfully wooing Lise (Leslie Caron).  The plot is really just a simple contrivance to get from one musical number to another, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

Back to that dilemma I mentioned a moment ago.  There’s the question of my personal taste versus the objective merit of the movies.  An American in Paris just didn’t appeal to me subjectively.  Objectively, on the other hand, there’s no question that this is an incredibly well-crafted production worthy of the acclaim it received back in the early 50s.

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