The Shooting of Harambe, One Year Later

We are now just over a year removed from the infamous shooting of Harambe, a gorilla at a Cincinnati zoo. Shortly after the shooting, I wrote this blog post articulating some of my thoughts on the shooting and a somewhat analogous shooting at a Chilean zoo. My basic opinion has not changed, but I believe that in hindsight, I was too harsh on the parents of the child who climbed into Harambe’s enclosure. Accidents happen with parenting, and all parents mess up sometimes. I should not have assumed that the parent or parents on scene were being negligent. And my proposal that whichever parent or parents was on scene should be forced to work to pay for the zoo to get a new gorilla wrongly absolved the zoo of any blame–a general flaw in my original post. Additionally, the term “replace” effectively treated both the gorilla and the lions at the Chilean zoo as commodities, which was the exact opposite of what I was attempting to convey. With that in mind, here are some retrospective thoughts on the shooting.

1. This is probably my most unpopular opinion: I maintain that if a human ends up in danger from an animal due to human folly, it is wrong to kill the animal to protect them. This absolutely does not mean the person deserves to get killed, especially in the case of a child. It just means that it is unjust to kill an animal because humans screwed up.

2. Zoos are at least ostensibly supposed to be sanctuaries for animals, so that makes Point 1 especially applicable here. You cannot go into a zoo, fail to prevent your kid from ending up in an enclosure, and then have the animal killed. Again, I am not saying the parents of the kid were being irresponsible, but the zoo is a place where animals are supposed to be safe; zoos should be primarily for animals and not people.

3. From an ethical standpoint, this is somewhat akin to the trolley debate about pushing someone onto the train tracks to stop a train crash. If the zoo officials had tried to use non-lethal methods to save the child and failed, they wouldn’t have actually been killing someone; they would have failed to prevent a death because they felt there was no ethical way to do so. But by shooting Harambe, they were directly responsible for the death of an innocent party.

4. If they had not killed Harambe, it is possible the kid would have died, but it’s also possible they could have saved both. But the way they went about it, they guaranteed Harambe’s death.

5. Both the zoo and parents deserve some blame here. Even great parents sometimes lose track of their kids, but that does not relieve them of responsibility when it does happen. And I would argue that you have to be super careful about that in a place like a zoo. On the flip side, if zoos are going to shoot animals in situations like this, they have an obligation to make sure people do not climb into the enclosure. If the child had gotten hurt, I do not believe that the parents would have had a case for a lawsuit, because the zoos do not have a responsibility to the customers to keep them or their kids out of enclosures; that responsibility is on the customers. But the zoo does have a responsibility to ensure the animals’ safety, and when you have got a “shoot first, ask questions later” policy, ensuring their safety includes keeping people from climbing in. And ultimately, it is more worthwhile for the conversation to primarily revolve around how the child could have been prevented from getting into the enclosure than it is to focus on whether or not the shooting was justified after things got to that point. Once the child was in the enclosure, there were no good options, and the zoo was in a sort of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. And when it comes down to it, most people will opt for killing the animal in a situation like that.

6. The Harambe memes were largely racist, and I am sure that some of the people angry about the shooting were motivated by bigotry, but I do not think that was the primary reason for the outrage for 3 major reasons. Firstly, as I recall, the story seemed to go viral, people heard about it, and they formed their opinions before the race of the family was known. In fact, these tweets might be fake, but it appears some people actually assumed the kid was white at first and made tweets with that assumption. I actually kind of wish that every controversial story could be like this, where we form an opinion, then learn the race of the people involved. And it felt like some (not all, obviously) of the people accusing critics of the shooting of being racist were tacitly suggesting that critics should have changed their view once finding out the kid was black. That said, Fox News doing a story on the kid’s dad’s criminal background was probably motivated by racism; that network doesn’t exactly seem super concerned about animals. Secondly, it seemed like the people angry about the shooting were primarily left-wing hippie types who are generally anti-racist, while right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh tended to choose species solidarity and defend the shooting, criticizing people who had a problem with it. I believe that Jill Stein was the only presidential candidate to comment on it, and she was also the most radically left wing on race. Certainly, some hippies are bad on race issues, but they do tend to skew more liberal on civil rights than the social conservatives who were predominantly in favor of the shooting. Thirdly, a lot of people just really love animals, and I think it is a big oversimplification to boil that down to racism.

7. The argument that someone cannot judge the parents unless they had kids was rather weak. Whether or not the parents were being irresponsible (reports seem to vary), that argument seems faulty to me. People seem to use a similar argument to dismiss critics of police shootings, basically saying “You can’t judge this, you’re not a cop,” and I do not like it there either. I am not comparing police shootings with the shooting of Harambe but rather pointing out that the “you can’t judge” argument is a very slippery slope.

8.  I honestly do not think that we can say objectively as a point of fact that human lives are more valuable than animal lives. I certainly treat human lives as more valuable than some animals, seeing as I eat meat, but I am willing to admit to hypocrisy there. The problem I see is that I do not think we can scientifically measure species’ worth, and we are far from objective. If gorillas could talk, they would probably say their species was the most valuable, and probably almost every other animal would say that about their own species. The only other animal that would probably say humans are the most valuable would be dogs. I have seen conservatives, who as mentioned earlier, generally seemed to support the killing, bring up that the Bible says humans are made in the image of God and worth more than animals, but that kind of proves my point. I am a Christian, but if tigers had a religion, they would probably say that God looks like them.

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Donald Trump, Islam, and the Worst of Both Worlds

Eighteen months ago, I wrote this blog post discussing the issues of Islamophobia and oppression and violence committed in the name of Islam. The gist of the piece was that: 1) discrimination and bigotry against Muslims is inexcusable; 2) oppression and violence are rampant in Islamic societies; 3) The idea that only a tiny minority of extremists hold bigoted, intolerant attitudes or condone oppressive and/or violent behavior does not stand up to closer scrutiny; 4) There are plenty of good, fair-minded Muslims who wholeheartedly oppose oppression, bigotry, and violence; 5) Behavior that is sexist, homophobic, etc. should not be condoned or soft-pedaled, whether the people perpetuating it are Muslim, Christian, or of any other religion or no religion at all; 6) We should combat Islamophobia by insisting on treating all Muslims as individuals rather than by attempting to defend the Islamic religion or Islamic culture. Unfortunately, in the last eighteen months, right-wing Islamophobes have gained political power with the election of Donald Trump, and many (though not all) liberals have failed to effectively counter this problem partly because they continue to insist on defending the Islamic religion and culture and repeating the “tiny minority of extremists” oversimplification. What I recently realized, however, is that Trump effectively embodies the worst of both worlds in this regard.

What do I mean by that? Well, for starters, we have seen in the last eighteen months that Trump has continued on his path of opposing equal rights for Muslims. While he has attempted to publicly downplay and modify his more extreme proposals, such as banning all Muslim immigrants, this represents more of a stylistic shift than anything else. He has endorsed religious profiling of Muslims, racial profiling of Arab Americans, or some combination. After being inaugurated as president, he wasted little time imposing a travel ban on refugees and other immigrants from a number of primarily Islamic countries. Rudy Giuliani, perhaps angry about Trump passing him over for a Cabinet post after he spent a year embarrassing himself, spilled the beans. He explained that Trump had asked him for advice on how to legally keep out Muslim immigrants, revealing that the travel ban was an effort at “stealth banning” Islamic immigration. Trump has also made no bones about prioritizing Christian refugees over Muslim refugees, despite the fact that many Christians and many Muslims have suffered from Islamic terrorism. His platitudes about equal treatment for everyone regardless of religion ring hollow in the face of his actual policies. Such discriminatory treatment is, of course, immoral. It is also detrimental to national security. As people such as Max Boot have pointed out, Europe has experienced significantly more turmoil between Muslim immigrants and the non-Muslim majority than the U.S. has partly because many of these immigrants have not been integrated into the general population. By contrast, in the aggregate, the United States has experienced less internal turmoil because it has done a better job of integrating Muslim immigrants. Trump’s hostile behavior runs the risk of lessening this trend, however, by alienating Muslims who are “in the middle,” so to speak, on issues such as terrorism and Separation of Church and State. The Onion hit the nail on the head by labeling WhiteHouse.gov an ISIS recruitment website.

One would think that, given his bigotry toward Muslims, Trump would at least avoid excusing or soft-pedaling oppressive behavior by conservative/fundamentalist Muslims. One would, however, be wrong. There were warning signs before he became president that this would be the case. In January of 2015, Trump tweeted that, “Many people are saying it was wonderful that Mrs. Obama refused to wear a scarf in Saudi Arabia, but they were insulted.We have enuf enemies.” (But apparently not enough misspellings!) Effectively, he argued that women were obligated to cater to the sexist attitudes and laws of an Islamic theocracy. Since being elected, however, Trump has shown that this was not an anomaly. On a presidential visit to Saudi Arabia, he bowed to the Saudi Arabian king and participated in a bizarre orb-touching ceremony. He has also made no effort to cut off trade with the nation, despite its atrocious human rights record. These actions are lamentable but relatively normal among American political leaders, if somewhat jarring coming from a man who made “standing up to radical Islam” such a cornerstone of his campaign. He went a step further, however, by accepting the highest civilian award from the Saudi Arabian government. By doing so, he disrespected all of the people who have been oppressed in Saudi Arabia and everyone who has fought for better human rights there. He effectively sent the message that things are not that bad in Saudi Arabia and that the atrocities committed by the government are no big deal.

Trump’s response (or lack thereof) to the treatment of gay people in Chechnya is no better. Homosexuality is illegal in Chechnya, and it has become apparent that there is an ongoing effort by the government to wipe out the gay population. It is, to put it bluntly, a genocide. Since Chechnya is overwhelmingly Muslim, a person could be forgiven for assuming that Trump would denounce the genocide. But wait! Chechnya is a federal subject of Russia, and Trump can’t do enough to cozy up to Putin, so of course, he hasn’t even spoken out against the genocide. And the U.S. has refused to accept gay refugees who are attempting to flee Chechnya.

Effectively, Trump has blended blatant anti-Muslim bigotry with some of the worst kind of “cultural relativism” that gets used to soft-pedal repressive behavior and attitudes in Islamic societies. (Cultural relativism is certainly not always a bad thing, but it is bad when it becomes a means of excusing human rights violations and bigotry.) When good people of the Islamic faith attempt to immigrate to the U.S. and become citizens, he responds to them with hostility. But when it suits his foreign policy/business interests, he is perfectly willing to condone downright heinous actions committed by Islamic theocracies.

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Ronald Reagan Hated Big Government Like a Rat Hates Cheese, Part 7: Gun Control

Here we come to what will probably be the last post in this series. Reagan was the first presidential candidate endorsed by the NRA, shortly after it shifted from a largely nonpartisan, pro-gun control organization to a pro-Republican, anti-gun control organization. In death, he has been invoked to defend gun rights. One meme of Reagan reads, “Survives Bullet Wound From Assassination Attempt; Continued to Protect Gun Rights for Citizens.” This statement is only true in the sense that, like most American presidents, Reagan never explicitly disputed the very basic right of citizens to own some sorts of firearms under certain conditions. In that sense, Barack Obama protected gun rights for citizens. But if “protected gun rights for citizens” means that Reagan was a firm opponent of excessive restrictions on gun ownership, then the claim is incorrect.

Many, though not all, of America’s early gun control laws were aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of black people and thus preventing slave rebellions and later on, rebellions against Jim Crow. Long after the days of slavery, race arguably played a role in stricter gun control in California. In 1965, a long history of systemic racism led to the Watts Riots. The following year, the Black Panther Party was formed. I will not attempt to sanitize the Black Panther Party. There was plenty to criticize about the organization, as well as some major commendable aspects. Nonetheless, it is true that the organization emerged in response to systemic racism, which Reagan did his part in perpetuating. According to PBS.org, “Members of the BPP would listen to police calls on a short wave radio, rush to the scene of the arrest with law books in hand and inform the person being arrested of their constitutional rights. BPP members also happened to carry loaded weapons, which were publicly displayed, but were careful to stand no closer than ten feet from the arrest so as not to interfere with the arrest.” In 1967, the California state government passed a law called the Mulford Bill “prohibiting the carrying of firearms on one’s person or in a vehicle, in any public place or on any public street.” There is no way of proving that this bill was solely a response to the Black Panther Party, and it is quite possible that there were other contributing factors. Nevertheless, there is also no disputing the fact that fear of the Black Panther Party, both from legitimately anti-racist people and from bigots, played a major role in the Mulford Bill. The press nicknamed it “the Panther Bill.” Reagan signed it. He also signed a state law imposing a mandatory 15-day waiting period for gun purchases; someone needing an emergency purchase to protect themselves from a stalker was out of luck. The waiting period in the law that Reagan signed was three times as long as the one that would later be contained in the Brady Bill. (More on that later.)

As president, Reagan hobnobbed with the NRA but walked a tightrope on gun issues. He signed the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which was popular with many gun rights activists and weakened the Gun Control Act of 1968. But this new legislation included a ban on fully automatic rifles. After his presidency, Reagan defended stricter gun control measures on at least three occasions. The month after he left office, Reagan gave a speech in which he stated, “I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen for sporting, for hunting and so forth, or for home defense. ” Nonetheless, “I do believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon or needed for defense of a home.” In a 1991 editorial, he wrote in support of the Brady Bill and went so far as to defend the portion of the bill mandating a seven-day waiting period for gun purchases (reduced to five before passage). Reagan asserted that, “since many handguns are acquired in the heat of passion (to settle a quarrel, for example) or at times of depression brought on by potential suicide, the Brady bill would provide a cooling-off period that would certainly have the effect of reducing the number of handgun deaths.” Additionally, he lumped mentally ill people, even those with no criminal records or pattern of violent behavior, with murderers. He asserted, “While there has been a Federal law on the books for more than 20 years that prohibits the sale of firearms to felons, fugitives, drug addicts and the mentally ill, it has no enforcement mechanism and basically works on the honor system, with the purchaser filling out a statement that the gun dealer sticks in a drawer.” No one would deny that some handguns are bought spur of the moment for murders or suicides. Yet as referenced earlier, waiting periods also penalize people in imminent danger from stalkers or other criminals in situations when police are unable or unwilling to protect them. Representative Bernie Sanders voted against the bill, creating a bizarrely humorous dichotomy: a Democratic Socialist was to the left of a conservative icon on gun control.

In 1994, Reagan joined with Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in signing a letter supporting a federal assault weapons ban. Reagan’s position on assault weapons was an implicit contradiction of what he had written in a 1975 edition of the Guns and Ammo magazine to gin up support for a primary challenge to Ford. “The gun … ” Reagan had written, “insures that the people are the equal of their government whenever that government forgets that it is servant and not master of the governed. When the British forgot that they got a revolution.” Of course, Reagan was well aware that a traditional shotgun is great “for sporting, for hunting and so forth” but not so great for overthrowing a tyrannical government. Generally, armed insurrections against oppressive regimes require assault rifles to have any chance of success. Thus, to appeal to gun owners, Reagan correctly praised gun rights as a tool for a revolution if the government became tyrannical. At the same time, he supported laws to ban precisely the type of weapons needed for a revolution if the government became tyrannical.

These seven blog posts do not represent the full extent of Reagan’s support for big government. I have not discussed his belief in the right of the State to put people to death, his suggestion that “maybe we should not have humored” Native Americans by allowing them tribal sovereignty, his support for military interventionism, or various other policies and views. At the same time, I would not claim that he favored big government in all areas. On many but not all economic issues, Reagan did support reducing government. While he was generally not good on free speech issues, he did at least oppose the Fairness Doctrine. And on immigration, Reagan was at least somewhat libertarian, with his support for amnesty and his acknowledgement, after some prodding, of the cruelty of Japanese American internment. Few people and very few politicians are statist on all issues or libertarian on all issues. Nonetheless, the idea that Reagan (or conservatives in general) were or are strongly for small government in general cannot stand up under close scrutiny. That idea is an “alternative fact.”

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Ronald Reagan Hated Big Government Like a Rat Hates Cheese, Part 6: Federal Spending

 

Thus far, we have examined Reagan’s support for big government on issues where the pro-government position is generally considered right-wing (obscenity laws, State persecution of gay people, and the War on Drugs) or is difficult to classify on the political spectrum (conscription and the drinking age.) The final two posts in this blog series, however, will look at two areas in which conservatives are generally considered to be for small government. The first of these areas is spending. The Right is typically associated with support for lower levels of federal spending and balanced budgets.

Traditionally, Republicans tended to believe that tax levels had to be commensurate with spending levels. This belief dated back to Abraham Lincoln, imposing an income tax to help finance the Civil War. Republican presidents could certainly overspend, but they rarely created budget deficits by combining high spending with low taxes. Despite arguably supporting overly high spending, Eisenhower was able to achieve a balanced budget through maintaining high taxes on the wealthy. In 1963, with both domestic and military spending very high, most House Republicans rejected John F. Kennedy’s tax cuts. Richard Nixon, while certainly spendthrift, nonetheless submitted a balanced budget to Congress. (It was rejected.) This is not to say that high spending and taxes is a form of small government by any means. It is merely to point out that pre-Reagan Republicans mostly tried to avoid massive federal debt and deficits. In the 1970s, however, some fiscal conservatives developed a theory called “Starve the Beast.” This theory was that if taxes were cut, it would force the government to reduce spending, since they would be taking in less money. Additionally, it was believed that the economic boom caused by tax cuts would make some federal spending on public assistance programs unnecessary. In his September 21, 1980 debate with third party candidate, John Anderson, Reagan took this position, with Anderson representing traditional Republicanism. A ten-term Representative from Illinois, Anderson had begun his career as a staunch conservative but had drifted to the center as time went on. His candidacy drew much of its support from Republicans who thought that the party was becoming too conservative. While Anderson stated that he would like to sign on for Reagan’s proposed tax cuts, he maintained, “what I’m going to do is to bring federal spending under control first.” Reagan dismissed this idea thusly: “Now, John’s been in the Congress for 20 years. And John tells us that first, we’ve got to reduce spending before we can reduce taxes. Well, if you’ve got a kid that’s extravagant, you can lecture him all you want to about his extravagance. Or you can cut his allowance and achieve the same end much quicker.” Did Reagan prove this claim correct?

As many people admit, defense spending increased greatly under the Reagan Administration. From 1980 to 1985, for example, annual defense spending more than doubled. In a 1983 speech, Reagan stated, “Now, I know that this is a hard time to call for increased defense spending. It isn’t easy to ask American families who are already making sacrifices in the recession, or American businesses which are struggling to reinvest for the future, and it isn’t easy for someone like me who’s dedicated his entire political career to reducing government spending.” But call for an increase he did. This played an important role in buoying up overall federal spending. According to FactCheck.org, “total federal spending soared” in Reagan’s first term. In addition to defense spending, the tools necessary for the drug war came with a high price tag.  Reagan’s own budget director, former Congressman David Stockman (R-MI) resigned in disgust and published a book in 1986 eviscerating his old boss for not cutting spending along with taxes. Did Reagan’s tax cuts spur enough economic growth to prevent the national debt and budget deficits from ballooning? Far from it. The national debt went from a little under a trillion dollars to almost three trillion, and the debt ceiling was raised seventeen times, while the budget was never balanced. Conservatives often attribute these problems to liberal Democrats in Congress spending heavily on economic programs. And it is certainly true that domestic spending on the economic safety net was very high in the 1980s. But throughout his presidency, Reagan never submitted a balanced budget to Congress. Moreover, these defenders are ignoring the fact that their argument goes against what Reagan himself had claimed in the debate with Anderson. Remember, he had insisted that once taxes were cut, federal spending would decrease accordingly. His own record would prove him wrong.

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Ronald Reagan Hated Big Government Like a Rat Hates Cheese, Part 5: Gay Rights

On July 1, 1975, Reason, a libertarian magazine, published an interview with Ronald Reagan. Reagan was preparing for an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Republican President Gerald Ford in a primary challenge. Reason acknowledged that, “His federally-funded Office of Criminal Justice Planning made large grants to police agencies for computers and other expensive equipment, and funded (among other projects) a large-scale research effort on how to prosecute pornographers more effectively. He several times vetoed legislation to reduce marijuana possession to a misdemeanor, and signed legislation sharply increasing penalties for drug dealers. Thus, Reagan’s record, while generally conservative, is not particularly libertarian.” As if to shy away from their own conclusion, however, they added, “But one’s administrative decisions, constrained as they are by existing laws, institutions, and politics, do not necessarily mirror one’s underlying philosophy.” At the beginning of the interview, Reagan stated, “If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” Less than two months earlier, however, Reagan had given the lie to his own claim.

In the 1970s, many states still had anti-sodomy laws on the books. By banning anal and oral sex, these laws effectively outlawed sexual intercourse between same-sex couples. Thus, they both discriminated against gay people and quite literally amounted to government control over what people did in the bedroom. In 1962, Illinois had become the first state to repeal its anti-sodomy law. For the rest of the decade, no other states followed suit. However, in the 1970s, starting with Connecticut in 1971, a number of states began rescinding their bans. In 1969, California Assemblyman and future San Fransisco Mayor Willie Brown began annually introducing a bill that would allow consenting adults to do as they pleased in the bedroom while protecting youth from sexual exploitation. The proposed bill would decriminalize adultery, “fornication,” and “sodomy” while tightening the state bans on nonconsensual sex and sex with minors. Brown was supported by a minority of legislators, as well as the ACLU of Southern California. Nationally, the far Left and the Libertarian Party had some degree of convergence on this issue. In 1971, a young candidate for the Liberty Union Party in Vermont named Bernie Sanders opined, “Let us abolish all laws which attempt to impose a particular brand of morality or ‘right’ on people. Let’s abolish all laws dealing with abortion, drugs, sexual behavior (adultery, homosexuality, etc.).” In its 1972 platform, the Libertarian Party proclaimed, “We favor the repeal of all laws creating “crimes without victims” now incorporated in Federal, state and local laws — such as laws on voluntary sexual relations, drug use, gambling, and attempted suicide.” But in California, as author William N. Eskridge, Jr. explains, “Brown’s bill had little likelihood of being enacted during the administration of Governor Ronald Reagan (1967-1975.)” In 1975, however, Reagan was replaced by Jerry Brown, a young Democrat. That same year, Jerry Brown signed Willie Brown’s repeal bill. It would be difficult to be too hard on Reagan for not pushing repeal of the state’s sodomy law. No previous governor, including his direct predecessor and Jerry Brown’s father, Pat Brown, had taken this courageous step. More disturbing is Reagan’s response to the repeal. In a May interview with Christianity Today, he stated that he would have vetoed the repeal bill, because, “You can make immorality legal, but you cannot make it moral.” While there is a great deal of room for disagreement on specific policy questions within libertarianism, and few people (including this author) are libertarian on all issues, there is simply no way to advocate government prohibition on private, consensual sexual activity between adults and still call oneself a libertarian. Three months later, the Libertarian Party further contrasted itself from Reagan. At its national convention, the party unanimously adopted a resolution affirming their opposition to both sodomy laws and the military’s ban on gay service members.

Much has been made of the fact that in 1978, Reagan opposed Proposition 6, a California ballot initiative that would have banned gay people from teaching in public schools. Although both Jerry Brown and President Carter opposed the initiative also, this commendable stance should not be ignored, especially considering the fact that Florida’s contemporary “liberal” Governor Reubin Askew flatly opposed gay teachers. Nonetheless, this does not erase Reagan’s earlier and later support for government-imposed persecution of gay people. Dan White opposed Proposition 6 while also opposing a gay rights ordinance in San Fransisco. Does that mean he was a gay rights advocate? Of course not. We generally recognize (or should recognize) that support for one aspect of civil rights for a group of people does not magically cancel out opposition to other aspects of civil rights for that group. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many politicians, from Thomas Jefferson and George Mason to Roger Taney and Jefferson Davis, opposed the African Slave Trade while condoning slavery itself. In the twentieth century, such politicians as Claude Pepper and Strom Thurmond opposed poll taxes while defending segregation.

In fact, Reagan would largely backpedal even from his support of gay public school teachers. In 1986, he was asked about a New York City ordinance outlawing housing and job discrimination against gay people. He could have simply stuck to the issue of private-sector discrimination and repeated his old, contradictory stance on the “right” of businesses to discriminate. Instead, he specifically addressed the issue of gay teachers, lamenting, “But I do have to question sometimes whether individual rights are being defended in this particular field, or whether they are demanding an acceptance of their particular lifestyle that others of us don’t demand. For example, should a teacher in a classroom be invoking their personal habits and advocating them to their students as a way of life?” This response seemed to pivot away from private sector discrimination straight to public sector discrimination, which had been illegal in New York City since 1980. More disturbingly, Reagan seemed to be deliberately conflating a teacher not going out of their way to hide being gay with describing their sexual escapades to students. Perhaps thinking that the president had misunderstood the question, the interviewer pointed out that, “This bill essentially applies the same antidiscriminatory measures as are applied to blacks, as to women, to other people. Do you think that’s all right?” Reagan responded, “How would we feel if a teacher, male or female, a heterosexual, insisted on the right in the classroom to discuss their sexual preferences and why and whether they believed in complete promiscuity or not? We would be quite offended and think that our children should not be exposed to that.” Like the modern day social conservative who considers same-sex couples holding hands to be “flaunting their sexual orientation,” Reagan ignored the fact that gay teachers had been held to standards not imposed on heterosexual teachers. Once restrictions about married women teaching were phased out, a heterosexual teacher could not be fired from their job for referring to their spouses with gendered pronouns. Nor were heterosexual teachers expected to hide from colleagues that they were heterosexual. It was as if Reagan felt some embarrassment about his earlier libertarian stance and was attempting to tacitly disavow it.

Reagan was equally non-libertarian when it came to the issue of government forcing gay people out of the military. His administration implemented a policy clarifying and solidifying the U.S. military’s longstanding ban on gay soldiers. The policy took the form of a Department of Defense Directive declaring that “homosexuality is incompatible with military service.” The proposal had been put forth under Carter, but it was under Reagan that it was effectively put into practice. More damningly, while Reagan’s views on gay people in the military were not much different than Carter’s, they put him markedly to the Right of Walter Mondale, his 1984 Democratic presidential opponent. Mondale promised an executive order ending government discrimination against gay people in all forms of federal employment, including the military. And despite having eight years to shift policy, Reagan made no attempt to rescind the ban on gay military personnel during his administration. Some critics of his presidency have pointed to his response to the AIDS crisis to suggest that Reagan ignored gay Americans. In fact, they are incorrect. Far from ignoring gay people, he was, for the most part, perfectly fine with the government actively abridging their rights. In fact, he was an excellent case study in how the very heart and soul of conservatism was not libertarianism, unless “libertarianism” means “the State policing what consenting adults do in their bedrooms.”

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Ronald Reagan Hated Big Government Like a Rat Hates Cheese, Part 4: The War on Drugs

Perhaps the two most important social issues for the majority of libertarians are the War on Drugs and strict gun control, both of which they (rightfully, in my opinion) oppose. It is thus worth noting that Reagan was extremely un-libertarian on the War on Drugs. (We’ll get to gun control in one of the later posts in this series.) In a publication for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that has received funding from the Koch brothers, Gene Healy sums it up thusly: “President Nixon popularized the phrase ‘the war on drugs,’ but Reagan was the first chief executive who really took that metaphor seriously.” On October 14, 1982, the man who had declared that government was not the solution to the problem announced that the government needed to enforce drug prohibition for the sake of national security. Not only did Reagan strongly favor drug prohibition, he also believed that imprisonment as opposed to merely treatment was necessary. Nor did he limit his authoritarian stance to so-called “hard drugs.” When the National Academy of Sciences concluded that marijuana should be decriminalized–a proposal that had been previously endorsed by some members of his own party, such as Jacob Javits and Edward Brooke–Reagan balked at the idea. He signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. This legislation established mandatory minimum sentences for both possessing and selling drugs. For example, possessing one kilo of heroin or five kilos of cocaine carried a minimum penalty of ten years in prison.

In an article for The Atlantic, journalist Eric Schlosser explained that, “The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act marked a profound shift not only in America’s drug-control policy but also in the workings of its criminal-justice system. The bill greatly increased the penalties for federal drug offenses. More important, it established mandatory-minimum sentences, transferring power from federal judges to prosecutors. The mandatory minimums were based not on an individual’s role in a crime but on the quantity of drugs involved. Judges in such cases could no longer reduce a prison term out of mercy or compassion. Prosecutors were given the authority to decide whether a mandatory-minimum sentence applied.” Additionally, “A public-health approach to drug control was replaced by an emphasis on law enforcement. Drug abuse was no longer considered a form of illness; all drug use was deemed immoral, and punishing drug offenders was thought to be more important than getting them off drugs.” And while the bill included laudable efforts to ban the sale of drugs to minors, the term “minor” was implausibly defined as 21 and under the same way it was with Reagan’s alcohol legislation. All of this played a key role in the federal prison population increasing nearly eight-fold between 1980 and 2014. Schlosser and other writers, such as Randall Kennedy, have pointed out that many liberal Democrats voted for the legislation, complete with the infamous “crack vs powder” discrepancy that has tacitly favored white drug users over black drug users. Nonetheless, in the House of Representatives, fifteen of the sixteen Congress members to vote against the bill were liberal Democrats, including John Lewis and Barney Frank. Thus, most of the Representatives to take libertarian or semi-libertarian stances on the Drug War were from the Left. In 2000, Joseph McNamara, a Harlem beat cop-turned police chief of first Kansas City, Missouri and then San Jose, California, reflected on Reagan and the War on Drugs. McNamara had crusaded admirably against racism, police brutality, and the War on Drugs, and he speculated that Reagan might have come around to a more libertarian stance on narcotics. Of course, this is theoretically possible, just as it is theoretically possible that Tip O’Neill would have become an advocate for abolishing all public assistance programs. But while I do not want to in any way detract from the great work that McNamara did, there is simply little or nothing in Reagan’s record to indicate that he would have ever soured toward the War on Drugs. On this issue, as with many others, the Gipper found the might of the State to be superior to free choice.

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Ronald Reagan Hated Big Government Like a Rat Hates Cheese, Part 3: Raising the Drinking Age

Like many conservatives, Reagan had a relationship with America’s mainstream universities that might be described as rocky at best. (And like many conservatives, Reagan had a rather warm relationship with Bob Jones University, but that’s another story.) It is thus fitting that Reagan played a key role in creating a major headache for university presidents all over the country by helping raise the drinking age. Historically, the drinking age had been decided at the state level and often fluctuated. During the 1970s, many states lowered their drinking ages to 18. This coincided with the lowering of the voting age to 18 and reflected the position that a person old enough to fight in the military was old enough to make any other adult decisions. Unsurprisingly, some Americans considered this shift toward more libertarian policies to be a public safety hazard. New Jersey was one of the key states to take the pro-raising the drinking age position. The state’s Republican Governor Thomas Kean would take liberal and libertarian positions on a number of social issues  before, during, and after his governorship, including racial justice, teacher-led prayer in public schools, immigration, abortion, same-sex marriage, and restitution for survivors of Japanese American internment. But on issues such as gambling, the War on Drugs, and drinking, he supported nanny-state policies, including a ban on drinking for people under 21. In a speech to New Jersey high school students in 1984, Reagan declared that drunk driving was “a national tragedy involving transit across state borders,” and one of a few “special cases in which overwhelming need can be dealt with by prudent and limited Federal action.”

That year, with Reagan’s support, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. The law stipulated that any state which allowed residents under the age of 21 to buy or publicly possess alcohol would automatically forfeit ten percent of federal highway funds. Reagan signed the bill on July 17. While few would dispute that drunk driving was and is a problem, banning drinking by adults ages 18 to 2o seems counterintuitive. Firstly, it represents a flagrant restriction on individual freedom of choice for people who legally bear all responsibilities of adulthood up to and including the ability to be tried as an adult and executed. ( I do not support the death penalty, but it remains in place, and people under 21 are eligible for it.) Secondly, it stands to reason that a person willing to break the law by driving drunk would have no compunctions about purchasing alcohol illegally. Thirdly, drunk driving was and is hardly limited to 18-to-20 year olds–as demonstrated by the fact that Reagan’s own Vice President’s oldest son went drunk driving at age 30. In essence, Reagan viewed 18-to-20 year olds as old enough to be forced to register for the draft. But they were too young to use beer to drown their sorrows at the loss of civil liberties.

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