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If This Is Munich, We Must Be Germany

The public debate is framing the Iran nuclear deal exactly backwards.


As Congress prepares to vote on the recent agreement with Iran, the deal’s Republican opponents have been competing to see who can describe it in the most horrifying terms. Mike Huckabee claimed President Obama would “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven”. Senator Ted Cruz said “it will make the Obama administration the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism.” In a committee hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham scolded the Secretaries of State, Defense, and Energy, implying that the administration had been too eager to avoid war.

Could we win a war with Iran? Who wins the war between us and Iran? Who wins? Do you have any doubt who wins? … We win!

In a speech whose video has been watched more than half a million times on YouTube, former congressman Alan West denounced the “weakling in the White House” saying:

How dare Barack Obama, how dare John Kerry, how dare Valerie Jarrett, or any of these other charlatans that occupy Washington D.C., surrender this great constitutional republic to the Republic of Iran!

Senator Marco Rubio also sees “weakness”:

President Obama has consistently negotiated from a position of weakness, giving concession after concession to a regime that has American blood on its hands, holds Americans hostage, and has consistently violated every agreement it ever signed.

Chris Christie said that President Obama was “giving Iran a nuclear weapon”. And he implied that they will bully more “gifts” out of us, now that the realize how weak our president is:

You give them your belt, they’ll want your pants next. That’s the way it goes

Defenses of the deal, by contrast, have been measured. The New Yorker‘s Steven Coll‘s positive analysis, for example, concludes:

The deal is imperfect but good enough, and it offers a tentative promise of a less dangerous Middle East.

Or, as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, put it:

Relieving the risk of a nuclear conflict with Iran diplomatically is superior than trying to do that militarily.

Listening to this discussion, particularly the portion that penetrates the conservative bubble and bounces around its echo chamber, you might reasonably imagine that whatever small concessions we got from Iran, we gave up far too much in return. Those hard-headed and hard-fisted mullahs bullied that hapless jellyfish that we call a president, who was so eager to get any kind of deal that he gave away the store.

If that’s what you believe, you have the story exactly backwards: There is a bully in the story, but it’s the United States. We got Iran’s lunch money, and we gave up nothing.

How can that be? And if it is that way, why doesn’t President Obama beat his chest and say so?

Who? Us? The central myth of the era of American dominance (i.e., since World War II) is that our power is benign. No matter how many countries we invade or bomb, or how many governments we overthrow (as we overthrew Iran’s fledgling democracy in 1953 and reinstalled the brutal Shah), we always act on the side of right and justice. Sure, we police the world, but we’re Officer Friendly. We’re never the kind of cops who throw their weight around.

In acceptable American political debate, neither Republican nor Democratic leaders are allowed to challenge that myth. And that puts the Obama administration at a significant disadvantage as it tries to claim credit for its diplomatic victory over Iran. Because this time we did throw our weight around, and we got something.

Retelling the story. So let’s put aside the myth of benign American power and retell the story of the current agreement, beginning with the basic issue: Will Iran construct a nuclear weapon? In other words, will Iran do something that we did 70 years ago, that Israel did 50 years ago, and that Pakistan (Iran’s rival in the looming Sunni/Shia conflict) did almost 20 years ago?

I grant that in many parts of the Middle East, Iran funds and supplies groups that fight against our allies (though we find ourselves on the same side against ISIS). I grant that we (and Israel and Saudi Arabia) have good reasons to want to keep Iran from building a bomb. But let’s not pretend that Iran was doing something monstrous and unheard of when they built a secret complex capable of producing (eventually) a weaponizable quantity of fissionable material.

Iran is a moderately large country (with a population larger than traditional nuclear powers like United Kingdom or France) with oil wealth and a heritage of civilization going back to Cyrus the Great (who freed the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity). It sees a club of great nations (plus a few lesser nations) and believes it deserves to join. The fact that we have reasons to want to keep them out does not imply that their desire to join is illegitimate.

Threats of war. OK, so what have we done to stop them? During the Bush years, we negotiated a few sanctions, but mainly we rattled our sabers. (The Bush U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, is still rattling. And Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker has said “the next president could be called to take aggressive actions, including military action, on the first day in office”.) Every few months, the press would publish rumors that we (or Israel with or without our approval) were planning an attack on Iran’s nuclear laboratories and reactors, as Israel attacked Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981.  Presumably, at least some of that buzz came from intentional leaks meant to intimidate the Iranians. When the Obama administration came in, it continued to insist that “all options are on the table“. In other words, if we don’t get what we want, we might launch an attack.

If you look for any corresponding Iranian saber-rattling at us, what you mainly find are threats to counter-attack if we attack them. (These threats usually get covered in the American press as if hitting back were barbarous.)

So if there’s a Munich analogy here — I wouldn’t go there, but Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, John Bolton, and many other Obama critics did (including The Drudge Report photoshopping Obama’s face onto Neville Chamberlain in the photo above)  — the only way it can make any sense is if we are in the Hitler role. We’re the ones who have been threatening war unless another nation agrees to our demands.

Economic warfare. But the saber-rattling wasn’t working, so the Obama administration opened a second front: Through diplomacy, it got the UN Security Council to impose far harsher sanctions on Iran than the Bush administration had managed. We had to convince Russia and China to go along with us on that, which wasn’t easy. (Russia’s desire to oppose the West in Iran goes back the Great Game between the Czars and the British Empire.) But President Obama and Secretary Clinton got it done.

The sanctions took a serious bite out of the Iranian economy, which pushed them to the negotiating table. In the negotiations that just concluded, they agreed to restrictions on their nuclear program that should prevent them from having nuclear weapons for the near-to-medium term. (Whoever is president when the agreement expires will still have all of his or her options on the table.)

Who’s the bully? In exchange for those very real concessions, we agreed to a gradual relaxing of the sanctions that we created. What we’re “giving” the Iranians are their own frozen assets. And we’re going to allow them to participate in the world economy, like any other country would.

In what sense is any of that a “concession” on our part? Imagine you’re in school, and you get a smaller kid in a headlock. He gives you his lunch money and you let him go. Have you “conceded” anything to him, really?

Your fellow bullies might claim that you let him off too easy, that if you’d squeezed a little harder he might have given you his sneakers too. And maybe they’re right: By walking away unscathed, the kid gained much more than you did, compared to the scenario where you beat the crap out of him and took his lunch money anyway. (As Senator Graham says, if it comes to war, “We win!”)

But in a larger sense, all you’ve done is let him out of a situation that you created. You have his lunch money and he has nothing of yours.

That’s the Iran deal: We have an agreement to keep them from building a bomb any time soon, and an inspection regime to make sure they keep that agreement. They got nothing from us.

The 2016 Stump Speeches: Hillary Clinton

We all know who she is. But who is she really?


[This is part of my series: The 2016 Stump Speeches.] Hillary Clinton’s candidacy presents a unique challenge. As a presidential campaign begins, the question in voters’ minds is usually “Who is this person?”, and a responsible journalist tries to answer it by presenting information. But the question I keep hearing about Clinton is “Who is she really?”

We are drowning in information about Hillary, but so much of it — positive and negative alike — is false. For decades her critics have been lying about her, and she has countered by presenting a series of images that aren’t completely consistent. So what should we believe about her? If we elect her, what kind of president can we reasonably expect her to be?

The speeches she’s been giving since she started campaigning are meatier, in terms of detailed policies, than just about any other candidate in the race. And I’ll get to those speeches and policies below. But it’s hard to know how to listen to her proposals until you come terms with that over-arching question: Who is she really? Those policies she’s putting forward — which ones come from the heart, and which are driven by expediency?

My Hillary reading project. To answer those questions, I decided to try to clear my mind of prior conceptions and read her books in order: It Takes a Village (1996, a book about policies related to children and families, which she illustrates with stories about her own childhood and her experiences with Bill and Chelsea, as well as stories from women she’s met all over the world), Living History (2003, about her two terms as First Lady), and Hard Choices (2014, covering her Secretary of State years).

Along the way, I found myself drawn to read two books by the reformed right-wing hack David Brock: The Seduction of Hillary Rodham (1996; this was originally intended to be a hit job prior to Bill’s re-election campaign, but it went oddly astray and became an interesting biography) and Blinded by the Right (2002, giving an insider’s view of the Arkansas Project, the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife funded to dig up and publicize dirt about the Clintons).

What I was looking for in Hillary’s books was a consistent author’s voice. I believe writers always reveal more about themselves than they intend. (I worry about that sometimes.) It’s in their word choices, the tone of the stories they tell, the metaphors they use, and what topics they think flow naturally from other topics. If Hillary really wrote those books — and after reading them, I strongly believe she did — then her character must be in there somewhere, no matter what image she may have wanted to project.

Personal impressions. The simplest thing I can report after my reading project is that I like Hillary a lot more than I did when I started. When she appears on TV, she is so often either responding to an attack or anticipating one, so she seems guarded. But I think she feels much more secure when she is alone with a text (which already tells you something about her), and that’s when her self-effacing charm comes out.

She tells one story I love: Hillary knows she doesn’t sing well, so she mostly just doesn’t do it. (In her announcement speech, after she made fun of her Republican rivals by quoting lyrics from the Beatles’ “Yesterday”, she quipped: “You’re lucky I didn’t try singing that.”) But years ago she made one exception: After Chelsea was born, she sang lullabies. That stopped one day when Chelsea became old enough to put rudimentary sentences together. The toddler held up one finger and said, “No sing, Mommy.”

I also now have my own impression of her mysterious and unique relationship with Bill. Critics sometimes portray their marriage as a sham of political convenience, but I don’t think so. Bill Clinton is quite simply the most interesting person Hillary has ever met. She describes their relationship as one long conversation that started back at Yale in the 1970s and is still going. No matter what he might do, the world would be a dull place without him to talk to. For his part, I don’t think Bill would know who he was if he couldn’t see himself through her eyes. In all those infidelities, he’s never been looking for someone to replace Hillary, and if she dies first he will be devastated.

The establishment radical. As for understanding Hillary’s politics, a simple formula will take you a long way: progressive ends through pragmatic means. One of David Brock’s more interesting insights is the formative effect of her student-government years at Wellesley. Like most American colleges and universities, Wellesley changed a lot between 1965 and 1969. But unlike many other educational institutions, Wellesley stayed surprisingly peaceful through it all. Brock attributes that to Hillary’s cadre of student activists:

Hillary was able to co-opt the campus administration by calibrating student demands and winning change through the system.

He sees that experience as imprinting a paradigm of change on her: Hillary is not a revolutionary. She does not seek to overthrow the power structure, but is constantly probing to see how much the powers-that-be are willing to give up to keep the peace and stay in power. Brock labels this “establishment radicalism”.

[At Yale] Hillary took her moral bearings from the radicals, while favoring establishment tactics – precisely the formulation she had told Saul Alinsky would be most effective [when she turned down his job offer and went to law school]. This enabled her to work within the mainstream and to retain the respect and admiration of those in power.

You can hear this in her voting rights speech (see video below): “Progress is based on common ground, not scorched earth.” That’s why she won’t offer liberals red-meat rhetoric about “the bankers” or “the billionaire class”. They represent a power center she hopes to negotiate concessions from, not battle to the death.

The establishment-radical paradigm got reinforced by her biggest failure: healthcare reform. Not only did HillaryCare not become law, she was blamed for the 1994 Democratic rout that made Newt Gingrich the Speaker of the House. She learned her lesson: Push the powers that be too far, or get too far out in front of the country, and you’ll be slapped down.

You can see that cautious vision at work in her account of the Arab Spring uprisings: She presents herself (in Hard Choices) as the hesitant voice in the administration (compared to Obama’s idealism; this is one of the rare instances where she portrays herself out of harmony with Obama). Pushing tyrants like Mubarak to liberalize was right up her alley, but seeing them overthrown by young activists who offered no political program or organization to replace them made her very uneasy. (You can tell she feels vindicated by how things have played out.)

Half a loaf. That pragmatism often causes her to champion half-a-loaf policies when in her heart she still wants the whole loaf, or even to accept a step backwards to prevent a longer slide. You can see that in the Clinton administration’s gay-rights record. Bill came into office wanting gays to serve openly in the military and not thinking about marriage equality at all. He ended up with don’t-ask-don’t-tell and the Defense of Marriage Act — two policies both he and Hillary supported repealing in more recent years. But by supporting those compromises he avoided measures that would have been harder to reverse, like a federal marriage amendment. Through DADT and DOMA, the door to progress stayed ajar until the political climate changed.

It is both a strength and a weakness that Hillary never floats a pie-in-the-sky vision. Behind every Clinton proposal is the judgment: I think we could really do this.

Ironically, one of the best criticisms of that approach comes from the young Hillary Rodham, in the commencement speech she gave to her graduating class at Wellesley in 1969:

For too long our leaders have used politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.

If I could fix one thing about Hillary’s current rhetorical style, I would add a dash of dream-the-impossible-dream.

Hillary as Wellesley’s first student commencement speaker. Is that young woman still in there somewhere?

The wonk-in-chief. The other big thing to understand about Hillary is that she’s a wonk, a technocrat. She believes that smart people can figure things out, and that simple ideological solutions are often wrong. The most from-the-heart line in her economic policy speech was:

And, please, let’s get back to making decisions that rely on evidence more than ideology.

I don’t think she believes in ideology. Here’s what I mean by that: What’s real to her are people and the situations of their lives. (That comes through most clearly in It Takes a Village.) Ideologies are abstractions, and while abstractions can be handy tools for thinking things through, they aren’t real in the same way that people are real.

Worse, ideologies exaggerate conflict and hide agreement. My ideology may directly contradict yours, but when we get down to cases and start looking at individuals, very often we might want the same things for them. That’s how she can negotiate with the Iranians and make deals with insurance companies: If we can get down to cases and then create new abstractions from them, maybe we agree on principles that weren’t part of our prior ideologies.

But that approach demands a respect for facts and the real world. Her own respect for such expertise runs deep and traces all the way back to being a girl of the Mad Men era (just a few years older than Sally Draper) hoping to go places women had never been. Being smart and working hard to master the details of a subject was young Hillary’s claim to a place in the Man’s World. She knows that when expertise is disregarded, that’s when prejudice and old-boys’ networks and all the other defensive mechanisms of the status quo have free rein.

She has a wonkish sense of integrity that is easy to overlook: In the three speeches discussed below, every idea comes with either a proposal to implement it, or a promise that such proposals will come later. That discipline won’t let her indulge in the sweeping rhetoric that you’ll hear from other candidates to her left and right. Bernie Sanders can promise to break up the big banks. But in Clinton’s economic speech, you can almost hear her unspoken thoughts on that: What we really ought to be doing is getting the irresponsible risk out of the banking system, and while the too-big-to-fail banks are part of that, there are sometimes bigger risks in “the shadow-banking system, including hedge funds, high-frequency traders, non-bank finance companies; so many new kinds of entities, which receive little oversight at all.” She anticipates her future proposal, where she may have to give a little on the big banks in order to get the risk-reduction she wants.

That wonkish integrity may have cost her the presidency in 2008. She and Obama had very similar half-a-loaf healthcare plans, because neither dared to come out for the single-payer system that I suspect both would prefer. But once committed to her plan, she refused to misrepresent it: Obama pretended he could implement his plan without the unpopular individual mandate, but Clinton would not say that.

She’ll compromise in constructing her proposals, but once she has a plan she takes pride in it and won’t distort it.

But can I trust her? Just this week, we saw another example of what I’m coming to see as the standard pattern: The NYT had a BIG story: Two State Department inspectors general had asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into possible misuse of classified information in Clinton’s emails as Secretary of State. After dodging the bullets of countless scandals in the past, maybe this one would finally nail her.

Except … well, it wasn’t actually a criminal investigation. They had to issue a correction about that. And it wasn’t specifically targeted at Secretary Clinton. Another correction. And a Newsweek journalist who got hold of the same documents says even the corrected NYT story misinterpreted the whole thing. He concluded: “the piece is wrong in all of its implications and in almost every particular related to the inspector generals’ conclusions.”

In short, the big story has evaporated, leaving behind no specific accusation, but a general impression that Clinton must have done something wrong. That’s the pattern. The only atypical thing about this “scandal” is that it fell apart so quickly. If you take a post-investigation look at everything from Whitewater to Benghazi, there’s nothing there. But the overall effect is to shroud Hillary’s public image in a general haze of distrust.

Compare this to the residual cloud of pseudo-scandals that hangs over President Obama: his birth certificate, death panels, Fast & Furious, using the IRS to target the Tea Party, stealing our guns, plotting to invade Texas, and so on. By the Obama administration, most liberals had caught on to the right-wing attack machine, and the way it can sometimes co-opt “liberal” media like the NYT. So we shrug off those Obama stories. But your conservative friends and relatives are sure there must be a fire somewhere under all that smoke. But the attacks on Hillary started in a more trusting era, so her cloud seems more real.

Sometimes I hear this question: Given that Hillary carries this baggage, can’t Democrats nominate a ticket doesn’t have such a cloud hanging over it? Sure. It’s simple: Find candidates so perfect that the opposition can’t even lie about them. Good luck with that.

Now let’s look at the campaign speeches.

The Announcement Speech. [Transcript. Video.]

Announcement speeches are always sited in symbolic places. The choice of Roosevelt Island outside of New York City sends several messages: First, Hillary is running as herself, the former Senator from New York. If she had wanted to run as Bill’s wife, she’d have announced at the Clinton Library in Little Rock.

Second, as she points out in the speech, you can see the new World Trade Center from there. She’s acknowledging that we’re in a post-9-11 world, and she’s identifying with the collective heroism of New York City. But she’s also sending the message that New York isn’t stuck in 2001; it remembers, but it’s getting on with its life. America should do the same.

But finally, and most important, Roosevelt Island indicates that she’s running as a Democrat and claiming the heritage of the Democratic Party as it was remade by Franklin Roosevelt. The Republican nominee will have to run away from both the obstructionist Republican Congress and the disastrous legacy of George W. Bush. (That’s why Jeb Bush’s logo just says “Jeb!”.) But Hillary is confidently invoking the legacies of both President Obama and President Clinton. In the Economics speech she says:

Twice now in the past 20 years, a Democratic president has had to come in and clean up the mess left behind. I think the results speak for themselves.

In this speech, she ties the failure of those two Bush presidencies to ideas Republicans are still pushing.

We’re still working our way back from a crisis that happened because time-tested values were replaced by false promises. Instead of an economy built by every American for every American, we were told that if we let those at the top pay lower taxes and bend the rules, their success would trickle down to everyone else.

She recalls FDR’s historic “Four Freedoms” speech, and organizes her own speech around another set of four:

If you give me the chance, I’ll wage and win four fights for you.

Those fights are:

  • To make the economy work for everyday Americans, not just those at the top. More about this in the economic speech. But the key point is: “Growth and fairness go together. For lasting prosperity, you can’t have one without the other.”
  • To strengthen America’s families. Here you can see my point about ideology. When Republicans talk about “strengthening the family”, they mean an archetype of family: heterosexual Mom and Dad married once-and-for-all-time, raising their biological children in a house down the street from their Christian church. But Hillary is talking about the actual families that live in America: households of people related in all sorts of ways, who are struggling to get by and to achieve their full potential.
  • To maintain America’s leadership for peace, security, and prosperity. This part would fit in most Republican speeches, minus the endorsement of diplomacy. Most of my disagreements with Clinton are in defense and anti-terrorism, but I have to admit she is probably more in tune with the country than I am.
  • To reform our government and democracy so that it works for everyday Americans. More on this in the voting-rights speech, where she goes into detail about fighting the Republican efforts to suppress voting. But there’s also campaign finance reform: “We have to stop the endless flow of secret, unaccountable money that is distorting our elections, corrupting our political process, and drowning out the voices of our people. We need justices on the Supreme Court who will protect every citizen’s right to vote rather than every corporations right to buy elections. If necessary I will support a constitutional amendment to undo the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.”

The Economics Speech. [Transcript. Video.]

The basic principle is unchanged since Bill’s presidency: “If you work hard and do your part, you should be able to get ahead.” Hillary describes this as the “basic bargain” of our society.

The most fundamental liberal/conservative battle of frames revolves around who the poor are. Republicans push a Makers vs. Takers frame, in which the poor are moochers. A government safety net should keep them from dying in the streets, but leave them miserable enough that they will get off their asses and work. As Paul Ryan put it: “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.”

When that frame takes hold, Democrats lose: We become the people who want to tax away your hard-earned money and give it to the moochers, who could succeed if they tried, but don’t bother because life in the government hammock is too pleasant.

In the Democratic frame, the poor do work hard, but life at the bottom of society is so arduous that it’s difficult to do more than survive day-to-day. If we want poor people to invest effort in building a future for themselves and their children, we need to make their lives a little easier, and check that the uphill roads we expect them to travel are still open.

The Clintons have specialized in co-opting Republican rhetoric, as in the “work hard” above. Here’s another example:

I firmly believe that the best anti-poverty program is a job. But that’s hard to say if there aren’t enough jobs for people that we’re trying to help lift themselves out of poverty.

She steals Republican rhetoric around “growth” and organizes her own economic proposals around three themes: strong growth, fair growth, and long-term growth.

Hillary critiques the Republican growth prescription like this:

For 35 years, Republicans have argued that if we give more wealth to those at top by cutting their taxes and letting big corporations write their own rules, it will trickle down, it will trickle down to everyone else. Yet every time they have a chance to try that approach, it explodes the national debt, concentrates wealth even more, and does practically nothing to help hard-working Americans.

Her view is that strong growth depends on a large and vibrant middle class. “Inequality is a drag on our economy.” So anything that blocks people’s rise into the middle class is a growth problem. So her growth agenda involves equal pay for women, legal status for immigrants, and child care for working parents. It also requires investment in productivity by both the private and public sectors. The tax code should encourage private investment (and discourage moving jobs overseas), and government should finance an “infrastructure bank” to build and maintain airports, roads, a better electrical grid, and world-class internet (which we don’t have now). And it requires encouragement of the clean energy sources we’ll need in the future.

These investments will create millions of jobs, save us money in the long run and help us meet the threats of climate change.

Making “strong” and “fair” separate points is really more rhetoric than substance, because she believes they go together:

You can’t have one without the other. We can’t create enough jobs and new businesses without more growth, and we can’t build strong families and support our consumer economy without more fairness. We need both.

The fairness part of the speech covers increasing the minimum wage. (She hasn’t committed to a national $15 rate, which I see as a combination of her wonkishness and commitment to political possibility. As a wonk, she knows that the minimum wage should vary according to the local cost of living. A $15 rate probably won’t hurt employment in big cities, but in rural Iowa it might. So politically, $15 is not the hill she wants to die on.) Also: encouraging unions and profit sharing, defending and “enhancing” Social Security, shifting more of the tax burden back onto the rich, setting “a high bar on trade agreements” (though she still hasn’t taken a clear position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership), and “seeing every 4-year-old in America have access to high quality pre-school in the next 10 years.” She promises more specific proposals on student debt and K-12 education in a later speech.

The long-term growth portion of the speech focuses on Wall Street, whose focus on quick profits through financial manipulation is largely responsible for the collapse of 2007-2008.

To the extent that such behavior was criminal, she wants to prosecute it:

There can be no justification or tolerance for this kind of criminal behavior. And while institutions have paid large fines and in some cases admitted guilt, too often it has seemed that the human beings responsible get off with limited consequences or none at all, even when they’ve already pocketed the gains. This is wrong, and on my watch it will change. … Too big to fail is still too big a problem … and we will prosecute individuals as well as firms when they commit fraud or other criminal wrong-doing.

She wants to defend the Dodd-Frank reforms, get more of a regulatory handle on “the shadow banking system”, provide tax credits for businesses that invest in their workers, and reform the capital gains tax to encourage more long-term investment. (The details of that came out later.)

The Voting Rights Speech. [Transcript. Video.]

We have a responsibility to say clearly and directly what’s really going on in our country. Because what is happening is a sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people, and young people from one end of our country to the other. … I call on Republicans at all levels of government, with all manner of ambition, to stop fear-mongering about a phantom epidemic of election fraud and start explaining why they’re so scared of letting citizens have their say.

… We need a Supreme Court that cares more about protecting the right to vote of a person than the right to buy an election of a corporation.

Proposals:

  • Repair the Voting Rights Act to restore the pre-clearance procedures thrown out by the Supreme Court.
  • Expand absentee voting and vote-by-mail.
  • Ensure that no one should ever have to wait more than 30 minutes to cast a vote.
  • At least 20 days of in-person early voting, including weekend and evening hours.
  • Universal, automatic voter registration when people turn 18, unless they opt out.

What Clinton has going for her. In resume terms, Hillary Clinton is one of the best qualified candidates ever. She had an unofficial-but-central role in her husband’s governorship and presidency. She served eight years in the Senate, and four as Secretary of State. (I recommend Hard Choices as a world tour of American policy. It’s organized by region, so you get a country-by-country review of America’s foreign relations during Obama’s first term. By the time you’re finished, you’ll probably know more about America’s challenges abroad than most Republican presidential candidates do.)

But experience is only a face-card in politics if you know how to play it. John McCain could never make it work against Obama, primarily because McCain always seemed like the one more likely to make some rash, spur-of-the-moment decision. I think Hillary will know how to use it, particularly against a national neophyte like Bush or Walker. In debates, she’ll spring the proper I-was-there story about Putin or Bin Laden at just the right moment, and it will be effective.

Where I wish for more. The progressive case against Hillary is that the current crisis doesn’t call for making the best deal possible with the powers that be, it calls for revolutionary change. Wall Street, the fossil fuel companies, the billionaires buying our elections — that whole power structure has to go. Just changing course from center-right to center-left won’t save our economy, our society, or the planet.

In foreign policy and defense, she is too identified with what Glenn Greenwald calls the National Security State. I don’t think she’ll start another Iraq War, but the drone wars in Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, and other countries would continue. And I don’t see her reining in the surveillance of the NSA.

The trick that I don’t think either Bill or Hillary (or Obama) ever mastered was how to take the half-loaf while continuing to raise energy behind the full-loaf vision we really need. Bill Clinton showed how to minimize the damage of the conservative consensus that formed during the Reagan years, but he never reversed it or inspired a new liberal consensus. Neither has Obama, and I’m skeptical that Hillary will either.

At the same time, I think the progressive ire and distrust towards Hillary that I see on my Facebook feed is overblown. She negotiates and constructs compromises — with Iran, with Wall Street, whoever — that’s who she is. It’s a trait, not a flaw.

We could do a lot worse in our next president, and if we don’t elect her I suspect we probably will. But is that a good enough reason to support policies — like drones — that I think are huge mistakes?

So the question boomerangs back to me: Can I take half a loaf in a president? And if I do, can I keep reaching for more later?

So What About Polygamy Anyway?

After same-sex marriage, is polygamy a further slide down the slippery slope, the next step of progress, or a separate issue entirely?


For the last 10-15 years, people who brought polygamy into a discussion were usually talking about something else. Polygamy was supposedly the next stop on the slippery slope we would step onto if we legalized same-sex marriage: Once you start fiddling with the definition of marriage, the doomsayers prophesied, there is no clear place to stop. In the Supreme Court’s recent marriage decision, Chief Justice Roberts brought that argument into his dissent:

One immediate question invited by the majority’s position is whether States may retain the definition of marriage as a union of two people.

Slippery-slope arguments are often a way to create flashy distractions from the issues that are actually present: If you have no coherent case to make about why a loving, committed same-sex couple shouldn’t be married, you talk instead about legalized polygamy, incest, pedophilia, and bestiality. Maybe no one is actually making those proposals yet, but they could at some point down the road.

On the other hand, some slippery-slope arguments actually are prophetic. In his Lawrence dissent in 2003, Justice Scalia warned:

This reasoning leaves on pretty shaky grounds state laws limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples.

Twelve years later, here we are.

And sometimes, when we look back on prophets of doom, our modern eyes see them as unintentional prophets of progress. The downward slide they feared, we recall proudly. For example, shortly after the Civil War, Rev. R. L. Dabny published a retrospective justification of slavery and secession: A Defence of Virginia. In it he warned the North of the horrors its abolitionist notions would ultimate bring to pass:

But other consequences follow from the abolitionist dogma. “All involuntary restraint is a sin against natural rights,” therefore laws which give to husbands more power over the persons and property of wives, than to wives over husbands, are iniquitous, and should be abolished. The same decision must be made upon the exclusion of women, whether married or single, from suffrage, office, and the full franchises of men. … But when God’s ordinance of the family is thus uprooted, and all the appointed influences of education thus inverted; when America has had a generation of women who were politicians, instead of mothers, how fundamental must be the destruction of society, and how distant and difficult must be the remedy!

Wives owning property! Women voting and running for office! Surely society must collapse from the unnatural strain of such abominations. Why didn’t we listen when Dabny warned us? If only we’d kept blacks in slavery, we could have avoided all this.

[You knew that was sarcasm, right?]

So OK: But for a few dead-enders, same-sex marriage is a done deal now. So polygamy’s usefulness as a slippery-slope horror is over. But are the predictions correct? Is that where we’re heading next? And if we get there, will it be a downward slide or an upward climb?

In Politico Magazine, Fredrik deBoer got right to work with “It’s Time to Legalize Polygamy“. Jonathan Rauch then answered with “No, Polygamy Isn’t the Next Gay Marriage“. And deBoer responded on his blog with “every bad argument against polygamy, debunked“. Another worthwhile piece promoting polygamy (with a better collection of links) is William E. Smith’s “Who’s Scared of Polygamy?” on Religion Dispatches.

I’m not going to take a pro or con position, but I would like to shape the discussion a little.

If you’re worrying (or hoping) that some judge will legalize polygamy next week, stop. Think about how hard it would have been to implement same-sex marriage during the Washington administration: At the dawn of the American Republic, men and women had different legal rights, and husband and wife were unequal legal roles. Same-sex marriage would have been absurd then, because women were legally incapable of playing the husband role, and before they could become wives, men would have to give up inalienable constitutional rights. To make same-sex marriage legal then, the whole legal relationship of men and women — which was embedded in countless laws — would have had to change.

But everything was different by 2003, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court considered the question. Massachusetts had passed an Equal Rights Amendment into its Constitution in 1976, so men and women were equal under the law. The U.S. Supreme Court had thrown out Louisiana’s Head and Master law in 1981, so husband and wife were legal equals. All that really had to happen to make same-sex marriage a reality was to change the forms from Husband and Wife to Spouse and Spouse.

(You can accurately describe American marriage after 1981 in a lot of ways, but “traditional marriage” is not one of them. I don’t know of any traditional society where husbands and wives have been equal under the law.)

Polygamy today resembles same-sex marriage in the Washington administration. Changing the forms to allow an indefinite number of spouses wouldn’t come close to defining it. Are we talking about Biblical (or Mormon) polygamy, where one man marries several women? Jacob and Leah and Rachel, say, or Solomon with his “seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines“? Or a group marriage where everybody listed is married to everybody else? Or maybe a chain marriage, where Bob marries Carol marries Ted marries Alice, but Bob and Alice are just friends? Or is some central couple the prime relationship, with other spouses secondary? The possibilities are endless, and the law would have to account for them.*

However you picture it, giving polygamy legal recognition would mean establishing legal infrastructure to answer questions that don’t come up in binary marriages. In a group marriage, can one spouse divorce the others, or does the whole relationship dissolve and need to be reformed? What’s the property settlement look like? Do all spouses have equal rights and responsibilities regarding the children, or do biological parents have a stronger legal bond? In a Biblical polygamous marriage, are all the wives equal, or does the first wife have a special role?

In any of the polygamy models, it doesn’t take much imagination to spin out questions that may not be unanswerable, but aren’t answered in any obvious way by current law. Such questions go all the way down to the most trivial level: What fee should a clerk charge for a plural marriage license? Are current fees based on per-person or per-marriage logic? That question never comes up as long as all marriages are between two people, but someone would need to decide God-knows-how-many minor issues like that.

Consequently, a court can’t simply order to a county clerk to issue a three-person marriage license. The judge would have to rewrite big chunks of the legal code, which a judge is not equipped to do, even if one thought he or she could get away with asserting that kind of power.

Is polygamy a legal right? A somewhat more realistic fantasy/nightmare goes like this: A judge might find that three or more people have a right to the legal advantages marriage offers, even if the judge can’t say exactly how that right should be implemented. That would have to go through a legislature, which is equipped and empowered to rewrite large chunks of the legal code.

So a judge could order the legislature to rectify the situation within a specified time. The legislature would probably refuse, and then the judge could assess damages against the state, which the governor could refuse to pay, and from there who knows where it all goes.

A key part of that scenario, though, is that the legal argument for a right to polygamy is sitting there inside the same-sex-marriage jurisprudence, waiting for some bold judge to notice it. In spite of John Roberts’ dissent, I don’t think that’s true.

In order to have this discussion, though, we need to set aside the particular opinion Justice Kennedy wrote, which really is as bad as the dissents claim. (I covered that when it came out.) It’s not at all typical of marriage-equality opinions, and it contains little in the way of a legal framework that could be extended to polygamy or anything else. I suspect it will have the same kind of influence that Kennedy’s similarly mushy DOMA opinion had: In subsequent lower-court decisions, judges made their rulings consistent with the outcome of the DOMA case, but didn’t attempt to apply Kennedy’s reasoning, such as it was.

The way pro-marriage-equality judges other than Kennedy have approached the issue is through the equal protection of the laws, a position I summarized in May: The opposite-sex marriage laws create an advantageous institution (marriage) and extend its benefits only to opposite-sex couples, when same-sex couples could be included by simply editing the license form, and no credible evidence suggested that negative consequences relevant to the mission of the government would ensue. (The possible offense to God claimed by anti-gay activists is not something the Constitution instructs the government to take notice of. Read the Preamble.) Under those circumstances, there’s really no way to claim that gays and lesbians are being granted the equal protection of the laws promised by the 14th Amendment.

What lies in the background of that argument is that the separation between gays/lesbians and the benefits of marriage is not something the affected individuals can easily fix on their own. Sexual orientation may or may not be innate, but it is not generally changeable in adulthood. And while legally, a gay or lesbian person could enter into a marriage with someone of the opposite sex, it’s hard to see that as a satisfactory solution. Consequently, because of who you are, you might be unable to take advantage of the marriage laws.

That argument is much harder to make for polygamy, which feels more like a lifestyle choice than an innate orientation. The government set up an advantageous path hoping to induce you to live one way, but you decided to live another way. I would defend your right to make that choice, but I don’t see how it gives you a right to the advantages of the other lifestyle.

Maybe some other legal argument for a right-to-polygamy is possible, but I don’t know what it is. I think you’d need to show that favoring binary relationships is an irrational thing for the government to do, and can’t conceivably lead to any social benefit the government might reasonably want to achieve. Constructing such an argument would be much harder than just cutting and pasting from the same-sex marriage arguments.

If polygamy isn’t a right. If polygamy isn’t a right inherent in the laws currently on the books, then if people want it, they need to convince legislatures to pass new laws. And that means convincing a large chunk of the electorate (who may or may not have polygamous fantasies) that a society that openly includes polygamous households is better — or at least no worse — than the society we have now.

If we’re debating in a legislature rather than before a judge, then I think the burden of proof shifts a little on both sides. To win in court, a polygamy supporter would need to show that banning it is completely irrational. To win in a legislature, they’d just need to argue that allowing it makes more sense than banning it. deBoer sums up:

my argument for polygamy is that there are people in the world who want it, and I recognize the inherent and total equality of the dignity and value of their relationships in comparison to two-person relationships.

As in same-sex marriage, we’re talking about real people doing real things. What’s our basis for telling them not to? I’m not saying there is no basis, I just can’t explain what it is off the top of my head.

On the other side, a legislature would have to debate a real proposal, not just an idea. Exactly what relationships are we giving legal form? How do all the details work? In particular, a law shouldn’t create holes in the system, which would be easy to do. (If my health insurance plan covers my spouse, maybe I could establish universal health care by marrying everybody. Or maybe I could solve the immigration problem by marrying all of the undocumented immigrants. Yes, those examples are ridiculous. But it’s not hard to imagine more realistic unintended scenarios, where groups might redefine themselves as marriages to take advantage of a poorly phrased law.) deBoer argues that the difficult logistics of polygamy isn’t a reason not to do it. But a real proposal would have to deal with those logistics.

In short, I would tell both deBoer and Rauch the same thing: I’m convincible, but I’m not convinced. The anti-polygamy argument isn’t sharp enough, and the pro-polygamy argument isn’t detailed enough. But however the issue eventually comes out, it will do so on its own merits, and will not follow automatically just because gay couples or lesbian couples are getting married.


* I’ve questioned whether I should even use the word polygamy to cover all these possibilities, since it often refers specifically to Biblical polygamy, with polyandry referring to a woman with many husbands. But the articles I’ve referenced are comfortable with that usage, so I have reluctantly followed it.

Trump is the New Palin

Whether you love him or hate him, it doesn’t matter. He’s bluffing.


After John McCain showed the bad judgment to make Sarah Palin a national figure in 2008, every few months a flurry of excitement/panic about Palin’s political future would erupt in the media. She was anointed the early Republican front-runner in the 2012 presidential cycle, to the point that Ross Douthat devoted a whole column to denying her front-runner status. When that speculation faded (because by the spring of 2011 she’d made no moves to build an organization in Iowa or New Hampshire), she went on a national bus tour to fan the flames again. She didn’t officially bow out until October, 2011.

Then she was going to run for the Senate in 2014, but that didn’t pan out either. This January she said she was “seriously interested” in a 2016 run, and proclaimed herself “ready for Hillary” at the Iowa Freedom Summit. But in a year when it seems that every Republican with a pulse is running for president, Palin isn’t.

I’ll take some credit for seeing through the Palin hype. After the 2010 mid-terms, I looked ahead to 2012:

Unlike New York Magazine, I don’t expect Palin to run. I expect her to keep people guessing for as long as she can, but to find an excuse to back out.

Sarah wants to be famous and make a lot of money and not work very hard. (If that’s a vice, a lot of us have it.) Teasing about running for office served those goals well, but actually running would require effort, not to mention answering the lamestream media’s gotcha questions, like “What newspaper do you read?

And that brings me to Donald Trump.

Trump is not exactly Palin — he loves hostile questions, for example — but the same phenomenon is at work. He really has no interest in being president, and when the campaign gets serious he won’t be there. So if his candidacy is getting you either excited or riled, don’t waste your energy.

Like Sarah Palin, Donald Trump lives off his image. That image is all about leadership, so of course he wants to be seen in terms of the ultimate leadership job, President of the United States. If you buy Trump’s image, you think he’d be a great president: making the tough decisions, banging heads together until everybody gets in line, cutting through the BS of the vested interests, and doing the common-sense things we all know need to get done. Who wouldn’t want to call up ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and say, “You’re fired”?

It’s a great fantasy. But actually being President? What a headache that would be. Even the Donald’s hairpiece would go grey.

In previous cycles, bluffing about running for president has served him well. But Trump understands something that seems to have escaped Palin: To keep people interested, you have to keep raising the bar. Except for a small group of rabid fans, the public has lost interest in Palin, because we’ve seen it all before. So she can hint about running, but until she starts acting like a serious candidate — building an organization, appearing in debates, pushing some signature issues beyond the buzzword stage, and so on — nobody is going to pay much attention.

If Trump hinted about a 2016 race and then backed away from it, nobody would pay attention to any future bluffs. So he raised the bar: This time he actually declared his candidacy, and he’s giving speeches and interviews. He’s still not building an organization in primary states or raising money for a serious campaign, but he’s on top of the recent polls (with 18% of Republicans in a very divided field), and he’ll probably be on the stage in August when the first debate happens. Chances are good he’ll get a lot of attention during that debate and be in the headlines the next morning.

A big piece of the current bluff is that he doesn’t need to raise money: He’s very, very rich — as he keeps telling us — and so he can self-finance.

And that’s where the bluff is going to break down. The kind of campaign he’s run so far — flying around and giving speeches — isn’t very expensive. The big money in primary campaigns goes two places: Early, it goes into hiring staff and opening campaign offices in early-primary states, and then later it goes into TV advertising. He’s not doing either.

The kind of money Trump has spent so far — and foregone as business partners run away from him — is a recoverable investment. He’s building the Trump brand, which will net him future earnings in book sales and TV ratings. The campaign — at least the way he’s run it so far — will keep his act fresh for years to come.

By November, though, a serious candidate will have to start putting serious money into Iowa and New Hampshire. Not thousands, millions. TV time on the Boston stations that cover southern New Hampshire is not cheap. The idiosyncratic process of the Iowa caucuses requires a ground game. And if you survive the Iowa/NH/South Carolina winnowing in January and February, you just need more money to compete nationwide in March.

That’s not an investment any more. It would take maybe $100-200 million to win the Republican nomination, and even more to run a serious third-party campaign in the fall if he isn’t nominated. That’s money he can never get back.

And I don’t even believe he has it. Trump’s empire has always been a precarious structure built on debt. (That’s why he’s been involved in four bankruptcies.) Whatever he might be worth on paper, he doesn’t have hundreds of millions of ready cash available to blow on a whim.

So this campaign is a more elaborate bluff than he’s run in previous years, but it’s still a bluff. Look for him to find an exit sometime in December.

You Don’t Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot

Throughout American history, most bigots have been nice folks who had sincere religious reasons for treating other people badly.


Social conservatives were all over the airwaves and print media this week, explaining how and why the battle over marriage equality is not over. The Supreme Court may have spoken, but the other branches of government, they promised, could still step in somehow, if we elect the right people. Or county clerks could just refuse to issue licenses. Or ordinary people could practice civil disobedience in some unspecified way. There are, Glenn Beck has promised us, ten thousand pastors willing to “go to prison or to death” over this issue (though exactly what charges will brought against them or who might try to kill them is a bit vague).

To me, the most revealing moment of this Alamo-like refusal to surrender came when Texas Senator Ted Cruz was interviewed by Savannah Guthrie on The Today Show. Cruz was defending the “religious freedom” of Texas clerks not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, when Guthrie made an analogy:

GUTHRIE: If a state clerk refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple, would you agree with that too?
CRUZ: There’s no religious backing for that.

Religion and interracial marriage. To anyone who remembers the 1960s or has read the history of interracial marriage (or civil rights in general), Cruz’ response is simply ridiculous. Opposition to interracial marriage was constantly expressed in religious terms.

For example, the reason the Supreme Court had to decide Loving v. Virginia, the case that legalized interracial marriage nationwide in 1967, was that when Richard and Mildred Loving tried to get their conviction for miscegenation overturned (so that they could legally come back to Virginia), Judge Leon M. Bazile was having none of it:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

Judge Bazile’s decision says nothing about hating black people or even interracial couples. Yahoos on the street might have taunted Richard Loving as a “nigger lover”, but the judge did no such thing. He just saw the sense in a Virginia law that upheld God’s plan for the races.

Segregation. Opposition to school desegregation could be similarly respectful and devout. In 1958, Rev. Jerry Falwell preached a sermon “Segregation or Integration: Which?”. (Like all of Falwell’s pro-segregation sermons, this one is sadly unavailable online. Perhaps Liberty University might want to rectify this.) In it, he expressed his religious objection to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.

If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn the line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.

That polite-but-concerned religious defense of segregation goes all the way back to 1867, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court OK’d segregated passenger trains. Chief Justice Daniel Agnew wrote:

We declare a right to maintain separate relations, as far as is reasonably practicable, but in a spirit of kindness and charity, and with due regard to equality of rights, it is not prejudice, nor caste, nor injustice of any kind, but simply to suffer men to follow the law of races established by the Creator himself, and not to compel them to intermix contrary to their instincts.

Slavery. Even slavery had religious justifications, and the breakup of the Union was presaged by the splits in major religious denominations between Northern churches who found slavery immoral and Southern churches who taught that it was part of God’s plan. As Josiah Priest wrote in 1852:

“If God appointed the race of Ham judicially to slavery, and it were a heinous sin to enslave one, or all the race, how then is the appointment of God to go into effect? …. God does never sanction sin, nor call for the commission of moral evil to forward any of his purposes; wherefore we come to the conclusion, that is is not sinful to enslave the negro race, providing it is done in a tender, fatherly and thoughtful manner.”

Hatred of men, or love of God? Like most people who oppose marriage equality for gays and lesbians today, past opponents of racial equality were not necessarily the screaming haters we see in the more dramatic videos from the civil rights movement. Far more were sedate and thoughtful people who were not aware of hating anyone. They just held a sincere belief — “in a spirit of kindness and charity”, they would tell you — that blacks were an inferior race who were better off among their own kind, or perhaps under the “tender, fatherly and thoughtful” guidance of a white master.

Most believed that God agreed with them, and could cite you chapter and verse to prove it. Freeing the slaves, desegregating the schools, allowing interracial marriage — at the time, those changes were all seen as aggressions against the religion of large numbers of American Christians.

And it is a mistake to think that such beliefs are dead relics of an era long past. There are still white supremacist churches today. As the web site of Thomas Robb Ministries in Harrison, Arkansas puts it:

For the mission God has bestowed upon His chosen people, the white race, he requires their separation.  They must honor their heritage, not despise it. Other races must honor their heritage as well. In a well ordered world, this is God’s way.

Granted, such groups are small compared to the Catholics or Southern Baptists. But your First Amendment rights don’t depend on the size of your congregation. If the religious freedom Ted Cruz wants for himself applies to Thomas Robb’s parishioners as well, then of course the county clerk must be able to refuse a marriage license to an interracial couple.

Conservatism and progress. It’s not hard to see why Cruz doesn’t want to remember or identify with the historical tradition of social conservatism: When we look back from today’s perspective, we see that the slavers and segregationists were wrong. Most of them were probably very nice people if you met them in the right circumstances, but they were wrong. They had sincerely held beliefs that were firmly anchored in their understanding of Christianity, but they were wrong.

So hardly anybody wants to claim their legacy today.

That’s the general pattern of social conservatives and progress: Eventually, progress catches up to them as well, so they can look back and see that the previous revolution in social practices and public morality was justified. The slaves should have been freed. Blacks should have been served at the Greensboro lunch counter. Women should be allowed to vote and run for office and enter the professions. (I didn’t get into the religious arguments for keeping women in the kitchen, but trust me, they were plentiful, and are also still with us.)

But this time it’s different! It always is. With no one left to defend them, our memory of the social conservatives of the past reduces to Simon Legree, KKK lynch mobs, police unleashing dogs and fire hoses against peaceful marchers, and the white rabble screaming obscenities at little black girls on their way to school. The thoughtful, intellectual, devout defenders of an unjust status quo are forgotten, because their memory embarrasses their heirs.

Consequently, in every generation, the well-considered, devout bigotry of nice people is presented to the world as a new thing. They’re nothing like the villains we recall from past social-justice movements. This time they have good reasons to block progress. They have looked deep into their souls and read their Bibles and taken it to the Lord in prayer. They don’t hate anybody, they just believe that the world as it was when they were growing up was endorsed by God, and they want to stop today’s amoral radicals from upsetting God’s appointed order.

In other words, they are just like every generation of social conservatives before them. The analogy with Josiah Priest and Chief Justice Agnew and Judge Bazile and the young Jerry Falwell (who later reversed himself, removed his segregation sermons from circulation, and quietly pretended he had never believed anything else) could not be more apt.

Bigotry is not the same as hate. Bigotry just means believing that certain groups of people do not deserve the same kind of consideration you want for yourself. Their suffering and distress doesn’t count, or they must have brought it on themselves in some obscure way. You don’t have to hate those people any more than you hate your dog when you keep him penned in your yard, or hate your children when you make them eat something they hate. (The analogy of parents and children, in fact, was often applied by pro-slavery writers to the master/slave relationship. Husbands, similarly, needed to make decisions for their wives, because women were pure but unworldly creatures. That’s what men loved about them.)

I don’t know precisely why Ted Cruz or the four dissenting judges in Obergefell believe that gays and lesbians don’t deserve the equal protection of the laws, but I doubt hate has much to do with it. It doesn’t have to. The Tennessee clerks who resigned rather than issue same-sex marriage licenses — I’ll bet they’re nice people with sincere beliefs. But they’re also bigots.

Conservatives blanch in horror at that word, when someone applies it to them. In Justice Alito’s dissent, he imagines this dystopian future:

I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.

How unfair, that those who find their neighbors’ relationships unworthy might themselves be examined and found wanting. How unfair, that they might be lumped together with the past bigots they so closely resemble. Don’t we understand that it’s different this time? That these are nice, thoughtful people of sincere beliefs?

We understand quite well.

Hidden residue. On the surface, bigotry against gays and lesbians may seem unrelated to racial bigotry. But when you deny your unattractive roots rather than repent and atone for them, their influence can linger in the back of your mind, occasionally peeking out at inopportune moments.

In an Alternet article picked up by Salon, Tim Wise called attention to the lingering racial bigotry implicit in some prominent denunciations of the recent marriage-equality ruling. Congressman Louie Gohmert, for example, warned of divine retribution:

God’s hand of protection will be withdrawn [from America] as future actions from external and internal forces will soon make clear. I will do all I can to prevent such harm, but I am gravely fearful that the stage has now been set.

Gohmert is far from the only person to make this point, and his statement contains no overt racism. But think about its implications: God kept the U.S. under His special protection and showered us with blessings while we committed genocide against the Native Americans and enslaved Africans by the millions. But as soon as we celebrate people of the same gender living together in loving, committed relationships, He’s done with us.

I don’t see an alternative to Wise’s interpretation: Gohmert’s statement only makes sense if you assume that the suffering of non-whites is beneath God’s notice.

Wise goes on to discuss another Ted Cruz interview, this one with Sean Hannity. The Obergefell decision coming so closely on the heels of the Court’s refusal to gut ObamaCare made for “some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history”. (“I couldn’t say it more eloquently,” Hannity responded.)

Put aside the many-people-died events in American history (like Pearl Harbor or 9-11 or the bloodiest battles of the Civil War) and just restrict your attention to Supreme Court history. Cruz graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law, so I assume he knows about the Korematsu decision that OK’d putting Japanese-Americans in concentration camps; and Dred Scott, where the Court declared blacks had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect”; and the 1883 decision in the Civil Rights Cases, which gave the green light to Jim Crow. To be some of the darkest 24 hours in the Court’s history, preserving ObamaCare and establishing marriage equality has to rank with those.

Again, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the suffering of non-whites just doesn’t count. Wise draws his conclusion:

Sometimes, racism is manifested in the subtle way a person can dismiss the lived experiences of those racial others as if they were nothing, utterly erasing those experiences, consigning them to the ashbin of history like so much irrelevant refuse.

You don’t have to hate anybody to be bigoted against them. Believing that they don’t count is more than enough.

Summing up. There’s nothing new about nice, salt-of-the-Earth people who sincerely believe that certain other people are undeserving of empathy or respect or fair treatment. There’s nothing new about those beliefs being expressed and justified in religious terms, or put forward by ministers and theologians.

Quite the opposite, that’s the normal situation. Throughout American history, most people have been pretty nice — even the bigots. America has seen nice slaveholders, nice segregationists, nice male chauvinists. And from the beginning, we have been a religious people, who could not have lived with ourselves if we couldn’t justify our bigoted beliefs in religious terms.

So we did, and we do. It’s normal.

Bigotry has a long history in the United States. And while that tradition includes haters, they’ve never been the majority. Today’s non-hateful bigots, with their sincere beliefs and their Biblical justifications, stand in a line that goes back to the beginnings of our nation. But the people in that line have consistently been wrong, and eventually even the people further up the line see it.

That’s why they never claim their legacy or own the authenticity of their place in that line. But the rest of us don’t have to humor their historical blindness. Bigotry today looks no different than bigotry 50 or 100 or 200 years ago. There’s no reason to call it anything else.

Slurs: Who Can Say Them, When, and Why

Why President Obama can say “nigger” and I can’t (except when I can)


Maybe the best treatment of racial slurs ever to appear in a movie was this scene from the 2006 film Clerks 2. Randall, a fast-food worker, can’t understand why porch monkey is racist: When his non-racist grandmother used to say it, he claims, she just meant “a lazy person” not “a lazy black person”. After a black customer (played by Wanda Sykes) freaks, Randall’s friend Dante finally convinces him that porch monkey really is a racial slur (and maybe Randall’s grandmother had more racial prejudice than he remembered). But then Randall decides he’s going to “take it back”; he’s going to keep saying porch monkey, but reclaim it by using it in a non-racist way. A frustrated Dante explains to Randall that he can’t reclaim porch monkey, “because you’re not black!”

“Well listen to you,” Randall responds. “Telling me I can’t do something because of the color of my skin? You’re the racist.”

Randall’s obtuseness and Dante’s exasperation are funny, but Randall’s view is not that different from a lot of white men: Why are the rules different for us? Black rappers say nigger all the time, but when we do it’s racist. Meredith Brooks can name a song “Bitch” and Christina Aguilera can up the ante to “Super Bitch“. But when a guy says “bitch”, it’s sexist. A female writer like Lisa Miller can title her New York Magazine article “Hillary Clinton Finally Has Permission to be a Bitch” and it’s supposed to be, like, liberating or something. But when Glenn Beck referred to Clinton — the same woman! — as a “stereotypical bitch“, that was objectionable.

What’s up with that? When blacks and women can say and do things that white men can’t, isn’t that a double standard? And as Randall says, aren’t the liberals who promote that double standard the real racists and sexists?

In a word, no. But in real life — particularly when an example springs up unexpectedly, like Randall’s porch monkey — explaining why can be frustrating. A whole branch of the media is devoted to promoting what I have elsewhere called privileged distress, the feeling among white men — and Christians and English-speakers and the rich and every other privileged class in America — that they are really the persecuted ones. Their supporting examples and arguments and ways of framing the situation come easily to mind, while the explanations of why that’s the wrong way to look at it require some thought.

So let’s do some of that thinking.

Banter or insult? When blacks say “Hey, nigger” or “What’s up, nigger?” to each other, that’s banter. But if a white man like me walks up to a black and says, “What’s up, nigger?”, it’s an insult — even if I’m smiling and friendly when I do it. Why? There’s actually a color-blind rule here that’s fairly simple: An insult can be friendly banter if it can be thrown right back at you.

The reason it can be banter when one black guy says nigger to another is that the other guy can respond, “Who you calling nigger, nigger?” That doesn’t work when the white guy says it.

It’s not a double standard, because the same rule applies to me in exactly the same way. At my 40th high school reunion last fall, we were constantly making fun of how old we’ve gotten. Picture me with a too-full beer stein, and a classmate saying “Hey, old man, you sure you can lift that? Don’t want to hurt yourself.” It’s banter, and everyone laughs, because we’re all the same age.

But now imagine that the handsome and athletic young guy tending bar says the same thing to me as he serves the drink: “Hey, old man. You sure you can lift that? Don’t want to hurt yourself.” Now those are fighting words. He’s thrown an insult at me that I can’t throw right back. Now I’ve got something to prove.

The same rule applies all over: Fat people can kid each other about their weight. Tyrion Lannister can tell dwarf jokes. It’s not a double standard.

There are no white male equivalents. Sometimes you’ll hear people banter, not by throwing the same insult back and forth, but by using insults that are more-or-less equivalent. Picture two white guys at a bar, taunting each other in a friendly way with dago and pollock.

Some white guys think they should be able to use nigger the same way. The other guy can throw honky or cracker back at us, so it’s all good. Here’s the problem: honky and cracker are in no way equivalent to nigger.

If you just look them up in a dictionary you might think they are equivalent: honky is a racial slur directed at whites, nigger at blacks. What’s the difference?

Usage.

Nigger has centuries of usage behind it, and the connotation of that usage is that blacks are a subhuman race. Nigger evokes a detailed stereotype — lazy, stupid, violent, lustful, dangerous — while honky just says you’re a white guy I don’t like. For centuries, niggers weren’t really people. There’s no equivalent word for whites, because whites have always been seen as people.

If that example of the importance of usage doesn’t ring true for you, look at a different example: cow and bull. If you had recently arrived from Mars, where you learned English out of a dictionary, you might think that cow and bull are equivalent insults for women and men: Each compares a human to a bovine of the same gender.

But those words have centuries of usage behind them, and so they connote very different different ideas. Calling a woman a cow implies that she’s fat, lazy, and stupid, probably good for nothing but whelping and suckling babies. Calling a man a bull, on the other hand, is a compliment. He’s powerful and headstrong. A running back can bull his way over the goal line, while someone who gets intimidated out of making a legitimate claim has been cowed.

Likewise, a Martian might think that prick and cunt are equivalent insults: They each identify a person with his or her genitalia. But a prick is a minor annoyance, while a cunt is a subhuman who is only good for sex. You might have an argument with a prick, but talking to a cunt is just stupid.

Limbaugh.

In short: No way, no how can white men banter with nigger. Neither the word itself nor any equivalent insult can be thrown back at us. Ditto for bitch or cow or cunt. A woman can shoot back with prick, asshole, bastard, or jerk, but it’s just not the same.

Taboos vs. stereotypes. White guys like Rush Limbaugh treat slurs as if they were taboos — words we’re not supposed to say just because we’re not supposed to say them, like shit or fuck. There’s no reason for it, it’s just a rule. Worse, it’s a rule that’s not applied fairly: Only white guys get called to account when they break it.

How Limbaugh pictures himself

Consequently, white guys make slurs the object of bad-boy humor. Limbaugh thinks he is being brave and daring when he calls Sandra Fluke a slut. And he thinks he’s being clever when he finds ways to come as close as possible to saying nigger without actually saying it. (It’s like those I-didn’t-really-say-a-bad-word jokes we told in grade school: “What did the fish say when he swam into a concrete wall?” “Dam!”)

That’s what white guys — and a few non-white guys who are trying too hard to fit in — mean when they brag that they’re “not PC”. It’s a James Dean pose: I’m a rebel. I can’t be bound by your arbitrary rules about what words I can or can’t say.

What’s wrong with that attitude is that society’s distaste for slurs is not a meaningless taboo. There are at least two good reasons for it:

  • In any disagreement or discussion, using a slur is cheating: You’re hitting your opponent with a club they can’t use to hit you back.
  • Every time you use a slur, you perpetuate the stereotypes it invokes. Calling a black person a nigger raises the notion — whether you’re thinking about it consciously or not — that blacks are subhumans who don’t deserve equal treatment. Calling a woman a cunt reinforces the idea that women are just good for sex, and don’t have to be treated like thinking beings.

The various disadvantaged communities are all debating whether or not it’s ever OK to use the slurs themselves. Some argue that when black rappers use nigger, they jam the stereotype rather than perpetuate it. Some women believe that saying bitch is liberating, because it shows the word doesn’t scare them. Others disagree, believing that any use of a slur promotes its stereotypes.

I think this: Those issues are for those communities to figure out. In the unlikely event that they ask my advice, I might give it. But until then, my opinion as a white guy doesn’t and shouldn’t matter.

Words as words. Now, somebody is bound to point out that in my discussion of why white guys shouldn’t use nigger, bitch, and cunt, I’ve used nigger, bitch, and cunt. Isn’t that liberal hypocrisy? Aren’t I just waving my liberal privilege in Rush’s face, saying “I can say it but you can’t!”?

I plead not guilty. There is a difference between using a word and referring to a word. I haven’t been talking about “the niggers”, I’ve been referring to the word nigger.

Why is that OK? Once again, these are not taboos. There’s no dark magic in the letters that is unleashed whenever they are put together. The power is in the use, not in the pronunciation.

That distinction is too complex for children, so we teach them not to use the words by presenting them as taboo. And this creates problems for children, as when the tattle-tale blurts out: “Teacher, Billy said shit.”

Likewise in the mass media, where children might be listening and might regard the speaker as an authoritative example — “But Mommy, the man on the radio said it.” — we insist on circumlocutions like the N-word. But when adults talk to other adults as adults, we need to be able to name the words we’re referring to. Otherwise you wind up in situations like the stoning scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Obama on WTF. So now we come to President Obama’s interview on the podcast “WTF with Marc Maron“, where he said:

Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public.

And that caused a freak-out. Fox News’ Todd Starnes was one among many:

It was disappointing to say the least to hear such a vulgarity come out of the mouth of the leader of the free world.

But there you have it folks – this is man who was supposed to usher in the post-racial America. This is the man who was supposed to unite, not divide.

What President Obama said is indefensible. It soils the dignity of the Oval Office.

That’s a reaction to breaking a taboo: It would be appropriate if Obama had said fuck or shit. We don’t want our president saying crap like that.

But look at it in light of my previous analysis: We have a black man referring to the N-word in a forum not intended for children. It’s fine.

Fox’ David Webb raises this question:

Could you imagine if a Ted Cruz or somebody on the Republican side used it, in the same context, what the reaction would be.

You mean referring to it, in a discussion of racism intended for adults? I’d be fine with it.

Glee. What I’m not fine with is what Ted Nugent did: Use Obama’s example as an argument in favor of slurs and offensive symbols in general.

What sort of politically correct zombie could actually believe that the elimination of a word or a flag would reduce the evil of racism?

What sort of goofball could possibly believe that certain words are OK for one group of people but forbidden by others?

That, by the way, is the definition of racism.

I’m sure Ted and Randall could have a long talk about that, but no, it isn’t.

There’s something gleeful in Nugent’s usage of nigger, and that right there is the final test I’d recommend to any white person who’s thinking about saying it: You might think you’re referring to the word in the analytic way I have endorsed. But while analysis may at times be satisfying or even fascinating, it is almost never gleeful.

So if the word tastes delicious in your mouth, if saying it feels like a forbidden pleasure, something else is going on. Maybe you should reconsider.

Two Cheers for Justice Kennedy

By all means, celebrate. But, looking to future gay-rights cases, Justice Kennedy gave us more rhetoric than precedent.


Friday, the Supreme Court ended the decades-long legal debate on marriage equality, making same-sex marriage legal for the entire nation in Obergefell v Hodges. Across the country, supporters of gay rights were jubilant as they read to each other delicious paragraphs out of Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion. But I have a complaint: Justice Kennedy got the right result for the wrong reasons, and that will eventually cost us.

Not in other marriage cases — that’s over, just like everybody says. But Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric about the dignity of gay relationships wasn’t supported by a sound legal framework that we can use in, say, employment equality cases.

The DOMA hangover. As regular Sift readers know, I have mixed feelings about Justice Kennedy, particularly on the subject of gay rights. He tends to rule the way I want, and he’s often the swing vote that puts my position over the top. But being the swing vote, he usually ends up writing the majority opinion, and he writes it badly. That’s what happened when the Court threw out the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) two years ago, which I covered (along with Chief Justice Roberts’ hamstringing of the Voting Rights Act) in an article I demurely called “This Court Sucks“. And it happened again Friday.

The reason Obergefell came to the Court in the first place was that lower courts could not follow Kennedy’s mushy reasoning in the DOMA case. The Supreme Court is supposed to do more than just decide the current case, it’s supposed provide interpretive frameworks for lower courts to apply, so that future cases can be decided without involving the Supremes again. But when Judge Kean was throwing out Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriage, for example, he wrote that he had “gleaned” — not quoted, gleaned — two principles from Kennedy’s DOMA opinion. Other courts gleaned other principles and disagreed, so the highest court had to sort it out.

This time, Kennedy has made marriage equality the law of the land, but he’s done it with another piece of mushy reasoning that is a poor climax to the distinguished series of lower-court decisions supporting same-sex marriage, going all the way back to the 2003 Goodridge decision in Massachusetts. Instead of following the compelling logic laid out by one lower court after another, Kennedy’s opinion looks like exactly what critics of marriage equality say it is: a judge redefining marriage according to his own values. His ruling is full of beautiful tributes to the dignity of same-sex couples, but short on the kind of step-by-step legal thinking you can find in the lower-court rulings, which I summarized last month.

Due process isn’t enough. Every pro-marriage-equality judge I know of, other than Kennedy, has centered the argument on the 14th Amendment‘s guarantee of “the equal protection of the laws”. As I summarized:

In practice, that phrase has been interpreted to mean that if the government treats some people differently than others, it has to have a good reason. The more significant the discrimination, the weightier the reason needs to be.

That’s why laws that provide a marriage option to opposite-sex couples but deny it to same-sex couples are in trouble: because it’s increasingly hard to say what legitimate reason the government might have for that discrimination.

… So the claim that gays and lesbians want to “redefine marriage” has it exactly backwards. During the last century-and-a-half, marriage has already been redefined. And in marriage as it exists today — rather than during the Revolution or the Civil War — what’s our justification for refusing its advantages to same-sex couples?

Instead, Kennedy focuses on the 14th Amendment’s due-process clause, and finds a fundamental right to marry in the word liberty. His rhetoric is inspiring if you already agree with him, but if you don’t, his reasoning isn’t compelling. The dissents by Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, and Alito eviscerate his argument, and rightly so.

Kennedy’s biggest problem is that the Constitution doesn’t require governments, either federal or state, to recognize marriage at all. (If Oregon wanted to become “the free love state” and stop performing marriages entirely, that would be up to Oregonians.) Liberty traditionally means being left alone by the government, not that the government must help you in some way. So Roberts makes an argument that appears in some form in all the dissents:

Our cases have consistently refused to allow litigants to convert the shield provided by constitutional liberties into a sword to demand positive entitlements from the State.

The question Kennedy should have raised is: Once the State has defined the “positive entitlement” of marriage for some people, what’s its justification for denying those benefits to others? But that’s an equal-protection issue, not a liberty issue.

In short: the ruling came out the right way, but the people who still want to hold out against marriage equality feel vindicated in their view that the Court has usurped the power of the legislative branch by “redefining marriage”. It didn’t have to be like this. Why, oh why, couldn’t Justice Ginsburg have written this ruling?

Why it’s important. The lower courts nearly all used the equal-protection framework: Define a level of scrutiny appropriate to laws that discriminate against gays, and then examine the government’s reasons for discriminating under that level of scrutiny. One of the issues to decide, if you go that way, is whether gays and lesbians are a class that has traditionally faced discrimination, and so how much benefit of the doubt a legislature or electorate should get as to its motives.

Racial discrimination, for example, faces the highest level of scrutiny. As a matter of judicial precedent, laws that discriminate against traditionally disadvantaged racial groups are inherently suspect. Similarly, laws that discriminate against women are inherently suspect. It’s possible that some particular race- or gender-discriminating law can be justified, but a court will not give the government any benefit of the doubt.

The traditional discrimination against gays and lesbians certainly would justify giving laws against them some heightened level of scrutiny, but the Supreme Court has never done so. Kennedy doesn’t do so either.

Pro-marriage-equality judges who don’t invoke heightened scrutiny are forced to give the legislative branch the benefit of the doubt. And so they end up having to argue that same-sex marriage bans are completely irrational. That argument has been made, and was sitting there for Kennedy to endorse. He didn’t.

Going either way would have established a precedent for fighting other anti-gay discrimination: Either anti-gay discrimination would face heightened scrutiny in the future, or there would be a precedent for saying that certain kinds of anti-gay discrimination are irrational.

Instead, Justice Kennedy gave us just this result, justified by a lot of effusive rhetoric that has no further legal consequences.

The “threat to American democracy”. All four dissents lamented a judicial usurpation of powers properly belonging to the democratic branches — which is in fact a fair criticism of the argument Kennedy made. The place for flowery rhetoric is in the legislature or on the campaign trail. But it wouldn’t have been a fair criticism of the equal-protection argument Kennedy avoided.

Dahlia Lithwick raised the right question:

And all I could keep thinking was, “Where was all this five unelected judges chatter when you all handed down Citizens United? Or Shelby County? Why does this rhetoric about five elitist out-of-touch patrician fortune-cookie writers never stick when you’re in the five?”

The most-quoted Roberts line was:

Indeed, however heartened the proponents of same-sex marriage might be on this day, it is worth acknowledging what they have lost, and lost forever: the opportunity to win the true acceptance that comes from persuading their fellow citizens of the justice of their cause.

If you’re a straight person very distant from the gay community, this might sound convincing. But if you imagine yourself in the place of a same-sex couple, it isn’t convincing at all. Would you rather have widespread social approval ten years from now, or the equal protection of the laws today? The answer is pretty obvious.

The comparison to interracial marriage is apt. XKCD draws the chart:

Our fellow citizens are being persuaded of the justice of marriage equality — not, for the most part, by referendum campaigns, but by living in society with same-sex couples. That process will continue apace.

In these the-sky-will-fall-if-we-allow-this situations, most people have to see something in action before they realize the panic-mongers are conning them. As I predicted back in 2003:

Personally, I expect the same-sex marriage issue to follow the same course as interracial marriage. After a few years of Chicken-Little panic, the vast majority of Americans will recognize that the sky has not fallen, and that the new rights of homosexuals have come at the expense of no one.

Today, no one cares how interracial couples got the right to marry. Most young people have trouble believing it was ever an issue. (Have you ever tried to explain to a teen-ager why his friend’s parents’ marriage would have been illegal 50 years ago? I have.) So it will be for same-sex marriage.

Please Take Down Your Confederate Flag

It’s his flag, not yours.


Friday, I was walking along Main Street in Nashua, New Hampshire, a few blocks from where I live, when a pick-up truck drove by trailing a full-size Confederate battle flag behind its cab.

The truck didn’t stop, so I didn’t have a chance to ask the driver what message he thought he was sending. But I know what message I received. A little more than 36 hours had passed since Dylann Roof had murdered nine black people at a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, saying “You rape our women and you’re taking over the country. You have to go.” So, given the timing, what such a vigorous display of that flag said to me was: “Right on, Dylann.”

It’s possible that I’m misjudging that driver. Maybe he’s a Southerner stuck in New England for the summer, showing his regional pride. Maybe he’s a Lynyrd Skynyrd or Dukes of Hazzard fan who hadn’t been listening to the news at all. Maybe he’s the kind of guy who just likes to get a rise out of people like me. Maybe … I don’t know. I can spin possibilities all day, but the message I keep coming back to is: “Right on, Dylann.”

It pissed me off. I’m white, I’ve never been to Charleston, and to me Roof’s nine victims are little more than names and faces on my TV. But I imagine being gunned down in my church by someone I welcomed, and I get angry. And then I feel sad. And then I despair that we will never be done with this ancient tribal barbarism, much less ever achieve our stated national goal of “liberty and justice for all”.

As the truck went by, I didn’t respond, didn’t yell an insult or wave my middle finger or anything like that. To be honest, it was gone before I could react. But I like to think I would have restrained myself anyway. Because my anger, my sadness, my despair … maybe that was exactly what the driver wanted from me. Maybe hate-evoking-hate was exactly his purpose.

I don’t know what purpose motivates the government of South Carolina, or the legislature that put Dylann Roof’s favorite flag on top of the capitol in Columbia in 1961, and responded to an NAACP boycott in 2000 by moving it to fly in front of the capitol rather than above it. (Because the details of its presentation are enshrined in law, the flag could not be brought to half-mast in response to the Charleston massacre. So the American flag was lowered, but the Confederate flag was not.) I can’t say what motivates leaders like Governor Haley or Senator Graham to continue defending that flag.

Probably no state is more identified with the Confederacy than South Carolina, and no city more than Charleston. In 1860, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union. Charleston harbor was where the Civil War’s first shots were fired. Charleston is where the Southern delegates walked out off a Democratic convention set to nominate likely general-election winner Stephen Douglas, splitting the party and setting the stage for Lincoln’s election and South Carolina’s secession. (According to historian Douglas Egerton, that series of events was foreseen and intended by the walkout’s leaders.) Years before that, South Carolina was the home of John Calhoun, whose speech “Slavery a Positive Good” announced to the Senate the arrival of the defiant, self-righteous Southern attitude that laid the groundwork for secession and war. (Calhoun’s statue still stands on a pedestal high above Charleston. The Emanuel AME Church where the massacre took place is on Calhoun Street.)

For decades after Appomattox, the Confederate flag was displayed mainly at cemeteries and war monuments, but it became a political symbol again after President Truman desegregated the military in 1948 and Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats rebeled. Truman was succeeded by Eisenhower and Kennedy, each of whom sent federal troops to enforce the Supreme Court’s desegregation decisions. As the federal government became more and more identified with the civil rights movement, states and cities across the South began flying the Confederate flag over their official buildings. As in the 1860s, the flag represented “states rights”, but particularly a state’s right to oppress its Negro population.

South Carolina started flying it over the state capitol in 1961. After the Voting Rights Act restored the franchise to South Carolina’s blacks, the flag became a political issue. The slogan of those whites who want to keep it flying has been “heritage, not hate“, as if the heritage of South Carolina and the Confederate flag could somehow be separated from slavery, segregation, lynchings, and all the other manifestations of racism right up to Wednesday night’s massacre.

Since Wednesday, there has been a national backlash against the flag. In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote “Take Down the Confederate Flag – Now“, and many other writers and bloggers have posted some similar message, often in an angry or demanding voice. Hundreds protested in Columbia Saturday, but South Carolina’s political leadership has held firm. That intransigence has prompted calls for protesters to take more drastic action.

In that South Carolina will never willingly take down the flag, the time has come for opponents to exercise their First Amendment right to free speech and burn the Confederate flag — at the state Capitol in South Carolina, in front of the White House, in front of Fox News or maybe even outside the Grand Ol’ Opry.

One white supremacist’s merged symbol.

The writer angrily compares the flag to the Nazi hooked cross, and I’ve seen many blog articles and Facebook posts referring to it as “America’s swastika” or “the Confederate swastika“. (I found a literal Confederate swastika posted on a forum of the white supremacist group Stormfront. “I like it … a lot!” replied a commenter.)

I can imagine the feelings that lead people to say and write (and now do) stuff like that. Probably they’re a lot like what I felt when that truck went by me on Main Street. But burning Confederate flags to protest the Charleston massacre is like burning Qurans to protest 9-11. Yes, it will piss off the people who pissed you off. But how does that lead us anywhere good? I doubt that the glow of burning flags or books has ever enlightened anyone.

And enlightenment is what we need. The people who fly the Confederate flag need to come to understand the message they are sending. And understanding that message, they should take their flags down voluntarily. (Except for what I hope is the minority that really does want to say, “Right on, Dylann.” Racists have free-speech rights too.)

That’s what I’m asking, in as polite a form as I can manage: Please take your flag down.

I know you think your flag says something positive. But you need to understand that your intention does not control the message. You’re not saying what you think you’re saying.

Nobody enjoys being compared to the Nazis, but there is one way in which the swastika is an instructive example: It didn’t always mean what it means today. The swastika has a millennia-long history as a positive religious symbol. Even the word swastika has a pre-Nazi history, tracing back to a Sanscrit word that means good fortune. Particularly in India, you can see the hooked cross carved into temples built long before anyone ever heard of blitzkrieg or Kristallnacht or the Final Solution. There’s a lot in the swastika that I might want to invoke.

But I can’t.

The Nazis ruined the swastika. They own it now, because nothing captures a symbol like blood sacrifice.

Today, if I get a swastika tattoo or wear a swastika t-shirt or stencil a swastika onto the hood of my car, it doesn’t matter what I want it to mean. Whatever I think or intend, the swastika is a Nazi symbol, and no German-American like me will be able reclaim it for any other purpose for centuries.

And no, it doesn’t matter that generals like Rommel and Guderian were brilliant tacticians who revolutionized warfare, or that many of the brave German soldiers who marched under the swastika just wanted to defend their homes and families. The swastika is inextricably linked to Hitler and Auschwitz, and if I display it, I am linked to them too.

Something similar is true of the Confederate battle flag. Whatever you want it to mean, it belongs to the people who have sacrificed blood to it: the slave-masters and their defenders, the klansmen whose lynchings enforced Jim Crow, and the white supremacists who are still with us.

Dylann Roof laid his claim to the flag Wednesday night. He owns it; you don’t. What you want it to symbolize just doesn’t matter.

So take it down. It doesn’t say what you want it to say, and it won’t for generations to come.

The 2016 Stump Speeches: Rick Santorum

[This is part of a series of articles on the speeches of 2016 presidential candidates. The overall vision of the series and links to the other articles can be found here.]

On May 27, in a speech at Penn United Technologies in Cabot, Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum announced that he is running for president again. [video with transcript, better transcript]

Rebranding. The main thing I learned from the speech is: Santorum is rebranding for the 2016 cycle. He hasn’t changed the product, in that he still has the same positions and beliefs. But the emphasis will be different this time.

The Santorum of 2012 was mainly a culture warrior: anti-abortion (to the point of telling women carrying their rapist’s child to “accept what God has given you” and “make the best out of a bad situation”), anti-gay (he famously compared gay sex to “man on dog” in 2003 and then stood by that quote in 2011), and even anti-contraception. (“It’s not okay because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”)

And he still opposes those things. (Well, I’m guessing about contraception; he didn’t mention that.) But they’re not front and center any more. Instead, “My priority is you: the American worker.”

That’s not completely new either. In the 2012 cycle, especially after he was the last man standing against plutocrat Mitt Romney, Santorum tried to be the candidate of the working-class Republican. [see endnote 1] And much of the post-Ohio-primary wrap-up analysis said that Santorum could have won if he’d focused on that message, rather than getting drawn back into talking about contraception.

It sounds like he got the message. The announcement speech took place at a manufacturing plant in his home state, and was dominated by declarations like “Working families don’t need another President tied to big government or big money.” and “I promise you we will regain the title of a leader in world manufacturing.” He introduced himself by holding a lump of coal and telling about his coal-mining Italian-immigrant grandfather. [2]

New and improved nostalgia. Santorum’s conservatism has always been scented with nostalgia, but this time around the formula has changed: Rather than longing for Leave It to Beaver families, he’s trying to recover a past of humming factories, where unskilled workers could earn enough to support a housewife and send two kids to college. [3]

Any nostalgia-driven campaign has to answer two questions: How did we lose those golden days, and what can we do to get them back? Santorum answers the first in a classic right-wing fashion: American workers didn’t lose their place in the world economy, they were stabbed in the back.

In the late 70’s [4], like many of you, we saw the economic devastation here in Southwestern Pennsylvania and across this country, particularly in manufacturing, as a result of the excesses and indifference of big labor, big government, and yes, big business. Here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, the epicenter, we lost over 100,000 jobs in what seemed to be overnight.

That has to and did leave a mark on all of us. Afterwards, big government and big business told our workers that times have changed, American workers could no longer compete with low foreign wages and that those jobs were gone forever. Well, what about those politicians? For all those years, what did they do? What did they do for communities across this area and across this country and in small town America? They had no plan, and they provided no hope. And to that, I say: “No longer.”

As Middle America is hollowing out, we can’t sit idly by as big government politicians make it harder for our workers and then turn around and blame them for losing jobs overseas.

And they were subverted by an underclass.

Over the last 20 years, we’ve brought into this country, legally and illegally, 35 million mostly unskilled workers. And the result, over that same period of time, workers’ wages have flat lined.

Hillary Clinton and big business, they have called for a massive influx in unskilled labor. Business does it because they want to control costs. Hillary does it – well – she just wants votes. Their priorities are profits and power. My priority is you, the American worker.

Sleight of hand. Where Santorum will be vulnerable, at least in a general election, is in his answer to the second question: What in his proposals would actually do anything for the American worker? Answer: not much. His rhetoric about workers mostly just masks an agenda that will make the rich richer.

During Santorum’s grandfather’s lifetime, mining transformed from a hellish existence to the kind of endurable, good-paying job Santorum is nostalgic for. Two forces were responsible for that: government safety regulations and the United Mine Workers. Santorum is against both. His speech mentions unions only in that one derisive “big labor” quote above. As for regulations:

We will revoke every executive order and regulation — yeah — will revoke every executive order and regulation that costs American jobs.

Both in his speech and on his web site, Santorum frames a flat tax as his primary pro-worker idea. In fact it is an anti-worker idea, as anyone with common sense can see: Assessing the same tax rate on everyone reduces taxes for those who pay the top tax rates now, i.e., the rich. Unless the government is going to collect far less revenue, that means working people will have to pay more. And if a sharp loss of revenue and no corresponding cut in defense spending is the plan, will the deficit rise, or will Santorum make working people pay by cutting the other programs that make up most of the federal budget: Social Security and Medicare?

In short, what Santorum is proposing is the same sleight-of-hand Sam Brownback has played on Kansas: Cut taxes on the rich, and then (after huge deficits appear) re-balance the budget on the backs of working people.

The theory that this would create jobs is based on the same trickle-down economics conservatives have promoted for decades: Make the rich much richer, and then they’ll have the money to hire more people. It hasn’t worked for the last forty years, and doing even more of it in the next administration won’t work either. [5]

I could only find two Santorum positions that might genuinely help workers: an “incremental” increase in the minimum wage (I can’t find a commitment to a specific figure, but implicitly it must be lower than the $10.10 proposed by President Obama), and opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

Nativism. There is one other part of Santorum’s plan that will appeal to working-class conservatives: restricting immigration. His web site says:

He supports reducing immigration from about a million immigrants per year—the current level—down to about 750,000 per year. This will help blue collar American workers get back to work and thrive economically.

He spelled out his plan for undocumented immigrants in a column for Breitbart last month: Build an Israeli-style fence across the southern border, track more closely everyone who comes into the country legally on tourist or education visas, deport everyone who is here illegally, and start a guest-worker program for agricultural workers from Mexico.

Here at least the first-order common sense works: If you reduce the foreign-born competition for unskilled jobs, more native-born Americans might get them, and employers might have to pay more. Whether that all works once you figure in the secondary effects, though, is something a lot of economists doubt. Immigration doesn’t just take jobs, it creates jobs. Throwing out all those working, tax-paying undocumented immigrants will certainly shrink the economy. Whether the resulting smaller economy would have more jobs for the native-born — other than government jobs tracking down undocumented immigrants — is not clear.

At a minimum, there’s something unseemly about a guy glorifying his grandfather’s immigrant experience while denouncing today’s immigrants: Now that my family has made it into the lifeboat, let’s cast off.

Racial resentment. There was nothing overtly racist in Santorum’s speech, but his rhetoric is carefully constructed to appeal to a target audience — working-class Republicans — that is overwhelmingly white. Consequently, it contains certain code phrases that blacks and whites will hear differently.

It’s time we have a President who sees the struggle of working families in America not as an opportunity to divide us along race or class – but as a chance to unite us around the ideal that every child in America deserves her birthright – to be raised by her parents in a healthy home.

The idea that Democrats in general and Obama in particular “divide us along race or class” is very popular among Republicans. But let’s think about what it means. [6] First, delete “class” from the quote, because what else is Santorum doing when he talks about “a president tied to big money”? He’s dividing us by class. He’s saying Jeb Bush can’t represent American workers because he’s from the wrong class.

And how does Obama “divide us by race”? He talks about racism. Unless you believe racism ended with Jim Crow — somebody should ask Santorum about that — it continues to be a problem America needs to address. And how are we going to do that without pointing out ways that the black or Hispanic experience of America continues to diverge from the white experience? So in essence, what Santorum (or any of the other Republicans who use this phrase) mean when they denounce those who “divide us by race” is: People who talk about racism should just shut up.

Black Americans hear that message loud and clear, and know that they are not welcome to put their concerns forward in Santorum’s America. In short, Santorum’s white-targeted rhetoric divides us by race.

The culture warrior. Santorum the Culture Warrior is not gone, but in this speech he was submerged a bit.

As President, I will stand for the principle that every life matters – the poor, the disabled, and the unborn.  I will also fight for the freedom for you to believe what you are called to believe, not just in your places of worship, but outside of your places of worship too.

First, I sincerely doubt that Santorum wants to extend “the freedom to believe what you are called to believe” to, say, Muslims or atheists. He is talking to Christians, and maybe a few conservative Jews. Nobody else.

Second, “outside your places of worship” means that Christian-owned businesses should be able to discriminate against gays, and to dictate how female employees use their health insurance, if they can claim they have religious reasons to do so. (He called the Hobby Lobby decision “a tremendous victory for our freedom of conscience”.)

In front of a different audience, though, the culture war is still front-and-center. On a recent Glenn Beck radio show, Santorum played along with Beck’s apocalyptic fantasy of the government forcing churches to perform weddings for same-sex couples, saying “this is tantamount to government establishing religion.” He went on to echo what Mike Huckabee has been saying, that if the Supreme Court finds that marriage equality is part of the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection of the laws”,

that’s the court’s opinion. They’re entitled to their opinion. But the president and the Congress have an opinion too of what the Constitution is. And if they get it wrong and the consequences are what I suspect they will be toward people of faith, then this president will fight back.

What he leaves out. Mainly two things: climate change (or any concern for the environment at all) and women’s rights.

When he talked about his grandfather, Santorum admiringly held up a lump of coal — the dirtiest kind of fossil fuel to burn. “Cheap energy”, specifically “the shale revolution”, is one of the catalysts he sees for new American manufacturing jobs. And if he really does reverse “every executive order and regulation that costs American jobs”, that would include just about every environmental regulation ever. Didn’t the chemical companies that dumped toxic waste at Love Canal make that waste while creating American jobs?

After all, the climax of that humming-factories era Santorum is nostalgic for came when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, an event immortalized in Randy Neuman’s “Burn On, Big River“.

Specifically, though, I think Santorum is targeting the executive orders President Obama has issued to control greenhouse gases. The words climate, global warming, and greenhouse gas don’t appear in this speech. But Santorum is a climate change denier, and has even criticized the Pope for defending the environment.

And Santorum’s concern for the American worker doesn’t extend to female workers who make less money than their male co-workers or don’t want their employer’s religion to control their health care options. And if a woman would like to make her own choices about when to have children, or even just to have children by someone other than her rapist, tough luck.


[1] His pro-working-class stands have not stopped Santorum from drawing large contributions from mega-wealthy donors like Foster Friess.

[2] It’s always entertaining to watch Republican candidates stretch to connect to the working class. Rick himself was a professional-class kid. His Dad got a G.I.-bill education after World War II — thanks, big government — and became a psychologist. No doubt Jeb Bush’s announcement speech will flash back to a working-class Bush in the Middle Ages.

[3] Just as family-values nostalgia leaves out the oppression of women and blacks, nostalgia for the factories of the 1950s and 60s leaves out pollution, workplace injuries, and the unsafe-at-any-speed cars they made. (In a crash, those steering wheels would go right through your chest.) Also forgotten: the unions that demanded the wages that moved factory-workers into the middle class.

[4] Locating this betrayal in the 1970s is important, because it hides Ronald Reagan’s role in dismantling unions, changing the tax code to favor the rich, and taking the teeth out of antitrust enforcement.

[5] The best capsule definition of trickle-down theory was provided by William Blum: “the principle that the poor, who must subsist on table scraps dropped by the rich, can best be served by giving the rich bigger meals.”

[6] The Weekly Sift’s “Conservative-to-English Lexicon” defines dividing the country as “Talking about the concerns of voters other than real Americans.”

real American, in turn, is defined as “A white conservative Christian born in the United States at least 30 years ago.”

What’s So Scary About Caitlyn Jenner?

Transsexualism is the latest example of a difficult truth: Everything you thought was a category is actually a continuum.


The interview. When I started watching Diane Sawyer’s interview with Bruce Jenner (as he was still calling himself in late April), I can’t say I was fully comfortable either with transsexualism in general or with the idea that the hero of the 1976 Olympics [see endnote 1] thought of himself as a woman.

I sort of understood transsexuals in the abstract, or at least I could repeat the right words: For some reason nobody can adequately explain, the gender that society assigns you (based on your genitalia) just feels wrong; you think of yourself as a woman with a penis or a man with breasts and a vagina. Jenner described the feeling in Christian terms: feeling like he had “the soul of a female”.

But as someone who has a hard time pointing to his own soul or tracing its outlines, I can’t really claim I know what that means. At times I have felt like a dissenter from various aspects of male culture — the violence, say, or the joy so many men take in humiliating others — but I have always experienced myself as reaching for a different kind of masculinity (just as so many women in my generation reached for a different kind of femininity) rather than rejecting the whole concept. I’m not sure what it would mean to not feel like a man “inside”. I’m like the fish who hears another fish say that swimming in water just feels wrong, that he was meant to fly through the air. And I respond, “Water? What is water?”

In my personal life, no one has forced me to come to terms with transsexualism. More than one of my casual friends has a child who has adopted a new name and a new pronoun. But learning that name has been about all the adjustment required of me. Occasionally I have found myself in a social setting with someone whose gender was ambiguous — combining breasts with a beard, say. And I have been uncomfortable, but what I mainly felt was fear of making a social error. My discomfort manifested as a desire to be somewhere else, not to harm that other person or make him/her be different.

So I was perhaps the perfect target audience for the Sawyer/Jenner interview. The distance — identifying through a screen with Sawyer sitting across from Jenner — was about right for me to put aside my discomfort and listen with empathy as he (at that time, Jenner was still using the masculine pronoun and talking about “her” as a person he had not yet revealed to the public) discussed his decision to create a new public identity as a woman.

First reactions. After watching that interview, a few things seemed obvious to me:

  • At 65, Jenner is old enough to know what s/he wants.
  • Jenner gave masculinity a fair shot. If it hasn’t worked, it hasn’t worked. In some ways, his external success — being an Olympic hero, trying marriage with three gorgeous women, fathering six and step-fathering four “wonderful, wonderful children” — makes the case clearer. A less successful person with Jenner’s inner life might have blamed himself and said: “Masculinity would be fulfilling if only I were better at it.”
  • Sixty-five is a do-or-die point for a lot of things in life. If there’s something you’re going to regret not trying, you better get on with it.
  • If Jenner’s kids and step-kids are OK with the transition [2], why should the rest of us object?

So this week, Jenner’s new female identity — Caitlyn — made her public debute with an Annie Leibovitz portrait on the cover of Vanity Fair. (Looking at that photo, I assume Kim Kardashian is happy with the way Caitlyn “rocks it”. [2])

Not pink and blue, red and blue. The public reaction has generally split on political lines. Liberals like me have mostly praised the courage it took to go public with something this controversial, while the conservative reaction has been described by the Washington Post as “apocalyptic“. The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer said on his radio show:

If you want one snapshot of just how corrupt, how morally corrupt, how morally bent, how morally twisted, how morally confused, how morally bankrupt we have become, all you’ve got to do is take a look at the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.

Matt Walsh wrote for The Blaze:

It’s all so evil and so bizarre and so unthinkably ridiculous that no dystopian sci-fi writer could have predicted that the collapse of western society would look like this.

President Obama has praised Jenner, while Republican candidates to replace him have either said nothing or lined up against her. (Lindsey Graham is the exception. And while the WaPo article lists Hillary Clinton as “generally supportive”, I can’t find a quote.) Mike Huckabee has been particularly interesting to watch, as he defended the Duggar family’s handling of their son’s abuse of his sisters (but then removed their endorsement from his web page), while trying to make a joke out of transsexualism.

The social-conservative base that the Republicans need to appeal to has been anything but silent. All you have to do is pick any of the links above and read the comments. They’re not just opposed, they’re actively hostile about it.

Why? Now, part of me (and probably part of you) is saying, “What else is new? Conservatives are rejecting somebody for being different from them, sometimes in very aggressive, insulting ways. Par for the course.” But it’s worth considering all the reasons that it didn’t have to be this way.

  • Jenner is one of their own. In the Sawyer interview, Jenner self-describes as a conservative Republican who “believes in the Constitution”. Jenner talks about God creating his male body and female soul, and thinks seriously about what mission God had in mind for that combination. And Jenner is not just a nominal Christian, but has a real relationship with a congregation. In the WaPo, a minister describes how the Jenner/Kardashian family was “an integral part of this nondenominational evangelical church” and put considerable effort into founding a new church in their neighborhood.
  • There’s really no scripture about this. You’ll search in vain for a verse that says, “A man shall not become a woman.” (If God foresees all, why wouldn’t He have included that verse in His scripture?) The Bible assigns different roles to men and women (not always consistently), and Deuteronomy 22:5 bans cross-dressing (though this rabbi interprets that ban in a limited way). But as for spelling out how you tell whether God meant for you to be male or female, the Bible is silent. Biblical verses supposedly condemning transsexualism all require a lot of interpretation. What motivates people to do the work necessary to arrive at that conclusion?
  • It’s not our business. We all have the option to say, “I wouldn’t do that, but I guess it takes all kinds.” In Thomas Jefferson’s words, Jenner is neither picking my pocket nor breaking my leg.
  • It’s a freedom thing. Who knows, maybe Caitlyn has made a mistake she will eventually regret. But she’s risking her own future life and happiness, not yours or mine. People following their own vision and risking it all for a goal that seems important — that’s something conservatives usually admire.
  • Jenner is a great family-values story. When unexpected challenges arise in the life of one of its members, does a family pull that person closer or push him or her away? The Sawyer interview shows Jenner embedded in a matrix of close family relationships, and the family supports Caitlyn. I’ve got to admire that, and you’d think people who define their politics around “family values” would too.

So there’s plenty of room for conservatives to support Jenner, or just to shrug and move on. But clearly they don’t want to do that. Why not?

What I think is going on. When I look at my own initial discomfort, I think it traces back to a source so basic that it’s pre-verbal. Before I can talk about it, I need to tease it out. So bear with me while I seem to go off on a tangent.

The human mind is kind of a kludge. It has to be. After all, how is a three-pound piece of meat supposed to make sense of such a vast and complicated universe? One of the kludgy short-cuts our minds take is to break the world into categories, i.e., to clump different things together and treat them the same. Many of those categories are binary: male/female, child/adult, right/wrong, friend/enemy, and so on. Others have more options. (In grade school I was taught that there are three races of humans: caucasian, negroid, and mongoloid.) Some of the categories seem in-born, while others are taught to us so early they might as well be. For example, a certain amount of species recognition is practically hard-wired. Kids at an early age will tell you that two dogs are similar while a dog and a cat are different.

We really, really want to believe that the categories in our heads are objective descriptions of the world out there, but science keeps telling us that they aren’t. For example, there are no races, but rather a continuum of genetic difference. If you pluck two people from distant parts of the continuum, they may look like members of distinct races, but in the world as a whole, you won’t be able to trace any boundary line between those races.

Similarly, species are not platonic ideals, but clusters in the genetic continuum. So (contrary to Plato) there is no ideal horse or dog, just lots of individual horses and dogs, any two of whom resemble each other. There are no gay people and straight people, but rather a continuum of bisexuality. There are no nationalities — a point made very strikingly in a fascinating book called The Discovery of France. And like nationalities, modern languages are largely political constructions. In medieval Europe, for example, each village would have a dialect slightly different from the next. If you plucked people out of distant places on that continuum — say one from Paris, another from Madrid, and a third from Lisbon — they would sound like they were speaking different languages you could call French, Spanish, and Portuguese. But, like races, there were no boundaries where one butted up against the other — until politics created those boundaries and imposed them.

And now we are discovering that gender is a binary categorization imposed on an underlying continuum with multiple dimensions. It’s more complicated than just John Waynes with penises and Marilyn Monroes with vaginas.

If you think seriously about how flawed the fundamental building blocks of our thinking are, it’s scary. At any moment, some part of the Universe you’ve been assuming away could come back to bite you. That’s the human condition.

That’s why we get such an oogy feeling whenever we see an example of something we were raised to think didn’t exist: an effeminate man, two women kissing, a child with dark brown skin and frizzy red hair. It’s a reminder that we don’t really grasp the Universe; we just apply kludgy notions that more-or-less work most of the time.

What social conservatism is. At its root, social conservatism is a way to deny that fear and transmute it into anger. Conservatism reassures us that the categories in our heads are real. We didn’t make them up; God created them. They’re natural.

You can see that principle operating across the board. For example, that’s why social conservatives have such a hard time accepting evolution: If species are real things and if humans evolved from some other kind of primate, then each being in that mother-to-child chain belonged to a species. Somewhere along that line, the impermeable boundary between species had to be crossed: an ape mother gave birth to the first human child. Impossible!

Likewise abortion. The moral worth of a member of the human species is a unitary thing. It can’t develop gradually along a continuum, but has to exist either in its entirety or not at all. And a fetus is either a member of the human species or not. We aren’t allowed to recognize that in its early stages, a human fetus is virtually indistinguishable from the fetus of a pig or cow, or that it begins to differentiate from a chimp fetus even later.

This reification of the categories is why conservative rhetoric is obsessed with the word real: real men, real Americans, real conservatives. Liberals are more likely to describe themselves as authentic. Authentic is a relative word; it points to a harmony between what I am and the image I project. Real is absolute; I am a real X because I match an ideal definition of X that exists eternally in the mind of God.

Now, not even social conservatism can deny the existence of things that don’t fit neatly into the proper categories. But it can reject them as abominations. The list of abominations depends on the categories you were raised with: Men attracted to other men are abominations. Women who operate heavy machinery are abominations. Families who cross from black to white are abominations. Americans who can’t speak English are abominations. Mixed-race people are abominations. Genetic engineering produces abominations.

Functionally, an abomination is anything that causes confusion by making us doubt our categories. And by labeling it as an abomination, we transform our doubt and confusion into anger at whatever confused us.

So: Caitlyn Jenner is an abomination. Just by existing, she creates confusion about the kludgy notion of binary gender. She points out that there is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamed of in our philosophies … or our religions. That’s a scary idea, and by raising it, she becomes an object of anger.


[1] I remember eating Wheaties out of a box with Bruce Jenner’s picture on it. In the 1970s, (moreso than today, for some reason) the Decathlon was a legend-making Olympic event. Americans who won it — Jim Thorpe and Bob Mathias, for example — were famous for more than just a four-year cycle. They became the defining image of the perfect all-around athlete. Physically, they were what every American boy was supposed to want to become.

Bruce Jenner was a record-setting Olympic Decathlon champion, and he arrived at a moment in history when white males were starting to feel insecure about their athleticism. Black sports heroes (Jesse Ownes, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson) had once been tokens, freakish exceptions who were “credits to their race”. The next generation of black athletes (Wilt Chamberlain, Jim Brown, Willie Mays) claimed their place in the mainstream. But by the mid-70s, it was white players (Rick Barry, Dave Cowens) who looked like tokens in the NBA, and the NFL and MLB seemed headed in the same direction. Blacks would never be great quarterbacks, we told each other. But secretly we wondered if there would ever be a white running back on the level of O. J. Simpson, Tony Dorsett, or Walter Payton. (According to this CheatSheet.com top-ten list, the answer was no.) Even the last American Decathlon champion (Rafer Johnson) had been black.

And then came Bruce Jenner, the hero we needed at the time we needed him. A white man’s white man. Or so we thought.

[2] The most amusing reaction Jenner reports came from step-daughter Kim Kardashian. Following a “breakthrough” conversation with Kanye West (of all people), Kim became “by far, the most accepting” of the children. Jenner quotes her volunteering to help shape Caitlyn’s style:

Girl, you gotta rock it, baby. You gotta look good. If you’re doing this thing, I’m helping you. You’re representing the family. You gotta look really good.

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