spin cycle: revenge of the conscience clause

Welcome back to Spin Cycle, your alternative to slamming your face repeatedly into a brick wall when people in the news take you for a fool. Today’s face-slammingly awful expression: the “conscience clause.”

Oh, no. Hey. No. Wait a minute. Do we have to do this again?

We most certainly do, Internet Person. It’s different this time.

Well, not completely different. A conscience clause is still a legal loophole that lets you avoid doing part of your job if the task violates your religious beliefs. And it still confuses religion with morality. But stick around, won’t you? There’s something I want you to notice.

Last time we heard about conscience clauses, it was because some people didn’t want to sell over-the-counter drugs to people who are legally allowed to buy them. You may recall a certain asshole senator had a few asshole things to say about that. He’s back, too. But this time, he wants to use a “conscience clause” to treat gay soldiers like human garbage.

Have you noticed what these two matters of “conscience” have in common? In both cases, someone is trying to deny legal rights to a group of people he doesn’t belong to. But he’s talking about it as if he has a moral imperative to do so: Hey, I’d LIKE to let women handle their own medical business and I’d LIKE it if gay soldiers were treated with respect, but I’d feel so GUILTY. He’s simultaneously demanding a right to ignore other people’s rights and playing the martyr: I can’t help it. This is just what I believe.

Oh, yeah? Well, I believe anyone who would use their religious beliefs to take rights away from other people is an asshole. I can’t help it.


Following a horrible tragedy, you’ll often hear people say, “This is no time for politics” and “Let’s not make this political.”

The point some of them are making — that we shouldn’t base our laws on freak accidents, statistical anomalies, or the violent outburst of one disturbed person — is a good one. We are generally very bad at making decisions about the future, and we’re even worse at it when we’re upset. Many ridiculous, alarming laws have roots in times like these.

But the word “political” usually means self-interested, manipulative, opportunistic. Saying “This is no time for politics” presupposes that the people demanding new laws are preying on the angry and the vulnerable, that their ideas would seem unreasonable to us if we were not so sick with grief.

Many politicians are indeed self-interested, manipulative, and opportunistic. Fortunately for the rest of us, people’s motives have nothing to do with whether or not their ideas are any good.

If you think an idea is bad, you should be able to state clearly why you think so. “Stop politicizing this” is not a valid criticism of an idea. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of “Hey, look over there.”


Moderate is a word people use to describe political opinions that borrow a little from each of two other, conflicting opinions — or a person who holds such “moderate” opinions. If one person thinks all abortions should be legal and another person thinks no abortions should be legal, a “moderate” position might be that some abortions should be legal.

“Moderate” implies a careful consideration of the facts, a person who doesn’t want to do any more or less than necessary to solve a problem. People who hold different opinions — like people who want all or no abortions to be legal — are, to the “moderate,” being unnecessarily partisan.

This line of reasoning falls apart quickly.

The fact that two opposing opinions exist tells you nothing about the reasonableness of either one. Sometimes both “partisan” opinions are crazy (imagine if one political party wanted to burn down every church in the United States and the other wanted to burn down only Presbyterian churches), and sometimes one or the other is clearly, irredeemably wrong (like the people who thought slavery was okay).

Remember: There are more than two ways to think about almost everything. “Moderate” does not necessarily mean reasonable.

spin cycle: right to work

Welcome back to Spin Cycle, where we watch the news for three or four minutes and then get really upset and turn it off.

In previous editions of Spin Cycle, we’ve covered sound cannons, fiscal geology, and the curse of the inadvertently honest politician. Today, we’re going to talk about labor unions and whether people should have to join them or not.

So, okay, quickly: A labor union is what happens when a bunch of people who do the same job get together to negotiate — as a group — with the people who might hire them to do that job. Unions negotiate all kinds of things: salary, hours, working conditions, benefits, vacation time, etc. (“None of us will do this job for you unless all of us get X”).

Sometimes, if you want to work at a place, you have to join your local union (because the union made the employer promise not to hire any non-union people). The union makes you sign a piece of paper and give it some money every year.

Everyone caught up? Great. Now: there are these things called “right-to-work” laws.

Right to work? Shouldn’t everyone have the right to work? We do, don’t we? When something in politics sounds simple and true, it’s often neither. So right away you should be suspicious.

Here’s the story the “right-to-work” folks are telling you: These laws would give people the right to work wherever they wanted to work without being forced to join a union and pay dues.

That is a nice story. But it’s sort of like saying you should have the right to work in the United States (or any other country) without paying any taxes. It might benefit you as long as everyone else keeps paying taxes — because you get to hang out in public parks and use the roads and call the fire department for free — but it would be a pretty bad deal for your taxpaying neighbors.


A settler is a person who decides it’s time to live somewhere he’s never lived before. He grabs some friends and family, packs up his things, and plants a flag in a new place.

It sounds harmless enough — even noble, under the right circumstances. The word suggests a person who marches into a wild place and tells everyone to calm the hell down. Without the settler, the place would be unsettled. He completes it. That’s the idea.

Sometimes nobody lives in the new place. Sometimes a lot of people live there and the settler kills them or kicks them out so he can live there instead.

Sometimes a settler and his friends look suspiciously like an invading army.

When you think of yourself as a good influence, a calming presence, a necessary fixture of a place, it’s easy to rationalize whatever you’re doing there.


If you are an employee of a big-box retailer and I’m in your store, there is a word that precisely describes my relationship to you. That word is “customer.” I am here to buy something and you are here to sell it to me.

But you don’t call me your customer. You call me your “guest.”

If you are a person reading this on the internet, you’ve probably already guessed why big-box management thought this would be a great idea. Someone must have told them that words can change the way we think about other people and the way we interact with them.

Maybe if big-box employees call us “guests,” they will have warmer feelings toward us. But couldn’t it also change our feelings about them?

Think about it: We walk into a building. We stand under harsh fluorescent lights. Our host makes us pay for the privilege of wading through a sea of junk to find the thing we’re looking for, then standing in a big line for a long time before we’re allowed to have it. They don’t offer us anything to drink or a place to sit down.

If we’re customers, this is nothing personal. It’s business as usual. If we’re guests, these people are the worst hosts ever.